There are two ways to look at brain cancer, suggests Daniel Kirschenbaum, a neuropathologist and immunology researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science. The disease is traditionally described as the uncontrolled growth of cells, but it can also be seen as the failure of the immune system to identify and attack these cells.
“Our immune system is equipped to fight cancer,” says Kirschenbaum, who followed his wide-ranging scientific curiosity from a hospital in Switzerland to a trailblazing immunology lab at Weizmann as an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow. “We have cells that are tailored to do this. But if they fail to do so in the early stages, the cancer just grows.”
In fact, in glioblastomas, one of the most common and aggressive types of brain tumour, nearly half of the mass is made up of immune cells. If somebody with cancer gets the flu, immune cells flowing in their blood will usually fight off the virus. “But cells that are supposed to fight the tumour go inside, switch off and essentially become harmful,” says Kirschenbaum. “They’re supporting a tumour with factors and nutrients.
“If we can stop this, we can help people,” he continues. “We can treat their cancer and improve and prolong their lives.”