Fresh insights into how cells alert the body when they are in danger of becoming cancerous could open new doors in the search for therapies.
Scientists have discovered that regular cells can take on characteristics of immune cells, which can send warning signs when they are stressed or in danger.
The mechanism is part of the body’s system for removing older cells, a natural part of the ageing process, known as senescence.
Researchers say the system may also help the body detect cancer cells sooner, so that they can be removed before tumours form.
The results of the study extend our knowledge of molecular mechanisms controlling senescence and may lead to new strategies for development of anti-cancer and anti-aging therapeutics.
Senescence stops cells from dividing and prevents damaged cells from continuing to grow. The process is prompted by stress to the cell.
It is also triggered when genes that have the potential to cause cancer – called oncogenes – become active.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that key immune molecules inside cells, called TLR2 and TLR10, detect when oncogenes are switched on.
This initiates a cascade of chemical signals that cause inflammation and trigger immune cells to remove the damaged cell.
Cancer prevention hope
TLR2 and TLR10 were known to be important for detecting infections such as bacteria and viruses, but this is the first time they have been found to play a key role in ordinary cell ageing.
Dr Matthew Hoare, of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, who was not involved in the research, said this is a really hot area for research as senescence has the potential to stop cancer development in the earliest stages.
The study, published in Science Advances, was carried out at the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre at the University of Edinburgh.