Scientists have isolated a master gene that causes blood stem cells to turn into disease-fighting ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells. The discovery could potentially help boost the body’s production of these frontline tumour killing cells, creating new ways to treat cancer.

The researchers have ‘knocked out’ this gene known as E4bp4 in a mouse model, creating the world’s first animal model entirely lacking NK cells, but intact in every other way.

This breakthrough model should help solve the mystery of the role that NK cells play in autoimmune diseases, including diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Hugh Brady from the life sciences department at Imperial College London (ICL) who led the study said: “If increased numbers of the patient’s own blood stem cells could be coerced into differentiating into NK cells... we would be able to bolster the body’s cancer-fighting force.”

Natural killer cells — a type of white blood cell — are a major component of the human body’s innate, quick-response immune system, said an ICL release.

They provide a fast frontline defence against tumours, viruses and bacterial infections, by scanning the human body for cells that are cancerous or infected with a virus or a bacterial pathogen, and killing them.

These findings were published in the Sunday edition of Nature Immunology.

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