CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19/Gray News) – Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine discovered why “killer T cells” are unable to destroy cancer tumors.

They found a defect in these kinds of immune cells, and they believe repairing this defect will make the cells better at killing cancer.

According to a release, this research could be a significant boost to the growing field of immunotherapy, which aims to harness the body’s own immune defenses to defeat cancer, and it could let doctors better predict and assess how well a patient responds to treatment.

“For a long time, the presence of immune cells in cancer has been associated with a better outcome in patients, but it’s not really been clear why the immune cells haven’t been able to control the cancer,” Dr. Timothy Bullock of the UVA Cancer Center, said in the release.

Killer T cells often become inactive in solid tumors because a dysfunctional enzyme called enolase 1, which can’t break down glucose and become a functional cell.

By getting the enzyme to eat nutrients and thus work, the T cells may be better at killing cancer cells.

“This [finding] gives us plenty of opportunity to come in with interventions to invigorate these T cells and level the playing field substantially so they’re much more competitive,” Bullock said.

They also believe doctors will be able to examine the enzyme to see how well a patient will respond to treatment.

Bullock said he hopes this discovery will make emerging treatments more effective, such as a clinical trial underway on pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia at UVA.

He adds that in the future, these findings may also be used to dampen excessive immune response, like the reactions people with autoimmune disorders experience.

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