An under-the-radar immune cell shows potential in fight against cancer

One of the rarest of immune cells, unknown to scientists a decade ago, might prove to be a potent weapon in stopping cancer from spreading in the body, according to new research from the University of British Columbia.

Cancer immunotherapy — harnessing a person’s own immune system to destroy cancerous cells — has taken off in the past few years, as clinical trials have shown that it can be effective for some patients with blood-borne cancers, such as lymphoma. But it can also have severe side effects, and has been less successful in treating solid tumours.

Wilf Jefferies, a Professor in Department of Medical Genetics and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, discovered in 2016 that cancer cells lacking a protein called interleukin-33 (IL-33) become “invisible” to the immune system, allowing the cells to proliferate and then metastasize. That finding led him to train his sights on the cells that get activated by IL-33: Type-2 innate lymphoid (ILC2) cells.

ILC2 cells were discovered by scientists exploring the genesis of asthma, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the airways. But ILC2 cells, like many immune cells, likely have both negative and positive effects.

Dr. Jefferies and his team at


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