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As elite hunters of the immune system, T cells are constantly prowling our bodies for diseased cells to attack. But when they encounter a tumor, something unexpected can happen. New research shows that some cancer cells can fire a long nanotube projection into the T cell that, like a vampire’s fang, sucks energy-creating mitochondria from the immune cell, turning the predator into prey.

A study published this week in Cancer Cell investigated how cancer cells can rob mitochondria from T cells, shutting the immune cell down while energizing themselves. It may be yet another way cancer overcomes both the body’s defenses and resists many immunotherapies like CAR-T therapy and immune checkpoint blockade drugs, experts said.


“This is a new mechanism of immune evasion. It seems like the cancer cells are draining mitochondria from the T cells,” said Bo Li, a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a senior author on the paper. “It’s really amazing. Some of my colleagues, their reaction was like, ‘I can’t believe this is true.’ I understand that. It’s just like the cancer cell is too smart.”

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