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Part of what makes cancer so dangerous is that many cancers (especially those that attack organs) metastasize. Metastasis is when malignant cells or diseased organisms spread to other parts of the body by traveling through the blood, lymphatic system, or membranous surfaces. Metastasis makes it difficult for the immune system to even recognize that anything is wrong. That is why it sometimes takes so long before cancer is diagnosed.
Recent research has shown that a possible reason that tumors become “invisible” to the immune system is because they develop a deficiency in a certain protein called interleukein-33, or IL-33 for short. IL-33 seems to act as a marker for the immune system, allowing it to communicate that something is wrong and then attack the problem. Losing IL-33 and becoming invisible is obviously in the cancer’s best interest, but researchers are looking for ways to combat that.
Researchers think that by reintroducing IL-33 to tumors which have begun to metastasize, they might be able to keep them on the immune system’s radar. It’s important to realize that when tumors are noticed and removed, cancer patients often suffer relapses because once a cancer has metastasized, it won’t ever produce IL-33 again. In other words, if you don’t get rid of all of the cancer within a single procedure, it could come back. But reintroducing IL-33 gives the body a chance to fight cancer on its own terms.
Finding ways to use the immune system to fight against cancer is one of the major goals of cancer research, as the body provides a wonderful resource for healing itself. Unfortunately, things like cancer can adapt a lot faster than our bodies can, but with a little help from science now and then, the immune system has a much better chance of winning these biological wars.