About 15 years ago, cancer researchers noticed a trend. Some of the patients they were following had advanced tumors but were surviving a surprisingly long time with an experimental treatment. One of the things they had in common was a specific type of antibody, which seemed to give the immune system a leg up.
That was noteworthy, because many cancer treatments depend on how tumors and immune cells fare as they face off in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Normally, a cell in distress will display a protein on its surface, a kind of chemical alarm, flagging down the immune system like an orange spray-paint X marking a diseased tree for removal. The same is true of cancer cells: Their DNA damage makes them prime targets for culling. But many evolve to shed those alarm molecules, which helps them escape the immune system’s notice.
The patients who were doing well had antibodies that could prevent that sloughing off.
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