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The Immune System and Cancer

Posted 12/8/2014

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  A friend (thank you, Nalini) sent me the link to this highly interesting and disturbing article about the possible collusion of macrophages, the cells whose job it is to attack and kill microbes and other threats, including cancer cells, with those same cancer cells. This obviously completely contradicts the popular wisdom; we are all encouraged to do whatever we can to strengthen our immune system. The fact that no one can actually define "immune system" or prove that the various suggested strategies are helpful seems irrelevant.

  In all honesty, I have read this article three times now, and I still don't quite know how to introduce it to you or make full sense of it. Written by Barbara Ehrenreich, whose writing never disappoints, it appears in a website called The Baffler. Yes, this is a somewhat geeky read, but it is completely understandable to us non-scientists and is completely worth your time. Even if you are unconvinced or depressed by the suggestion that our immune systems may actually encourage the growth of cancer cells, it is more proof of how very complicated the whole problem is. Remember the old cliche about: Don't throw a stick at Mother Nature as she will throw back a pitch fork. Seems to be true over and over again in biology.

  Here are a few quotes to, I hope, get you interested and then a link to read more:

Terror Cells
Ain't no cure for dystopian biology


At around the turn of the millennium, some disturbing findings surfaced in the biomedical literature. Macrophages—immune cells whose function is to attack and kill microbes and other threats to the body—do not gather at tumor sites to destroy cancer cells, as had been optimistically imagined. Instead, they encourage the cancer cells to continue their mad reproductive rampage. Frances Balkwill, the British cell biologist who performed some of the key studies of treasonous immune cell behavior, described her colleagues in the field as being “horrified.”

By and large, medical science continues to present a happy face to the public. Self-help books and websites go right on advising cancer patients to boost their immune systems in order to combat the disease; patients should eat right and cultivate a supposedly immune-boosting “positive attitude.” Better yet, they are urged to “visualize” the successful destruction of cancer cells by the body’s immune cells, following guidelines such as:
• Cancer cells are weak and confused, and should be imagined as something that can fall apart like ground hamburger.
• There is an army of different kinds of white blood cells that can overwhelm the cancer cells.
• White blood cells are aggressive and want to seek out and attack the cancer cells.

At a more respectable level of discourse, Harvard physician Jerome Groopman wrote an entire 2012 New Yorker article on scientific attempts to enlist the immune system against cancer—without ever once mentioning that certain types of immune cells have a tendency to go over to the other side.

But the evidence for immune cell collusion with cancer keeps piling up.


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