The immune system is built to get rid of foreign matter in the body, including cells undergoing changes, like precursors to cancer cells. Unfortunately, certain types of cancer can suppress this function, allowing cancer cells to grow and for the disease to take hold. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, however, have found a way to weaken this effect through selenium.

Published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the study focused on so-called NKG2D ligands, of which eight variants are in existence. What caught the researchers' attention though was a certain variant that takes on liquid form. Because the variant is liquid in form, it is the easiest to affect the bloodstream, quickly dissolving to facilitate infection.

"For decades, selenium research has been focused on the identification of active metabolites, which are crucial for selenium chemoprevention of cancer. In this context, the metabolite methylselenol (CH3SeH) is known for its action to selectively kill transformed cells through mechanisms that include increased formation of reactive oxygen species, induction of DNA damage, triggering of apoptosis, and inhibition of angiogenesis," wrote the researchers.

"Molecules are found both on the surface of the cancer cells and dissolved in the blood of the affected person," said Professor Søren Skov from the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology from the University of Copenhagen.

Researchers were able to show that compounds of selenium seem to have a positive effect in terms of neutralizing that specific variant of NKG2D ligand both in its soluble form as well as when molecules are placed on a cell's surface.

In the United States alone, there are 1,665,540 new cases of cancer estimated to be diagnosed in 2014. Out of this number, about 233,000 will be men diagnosed with prostate cancer, one of the more aggressive types that loading up on garlic and broccoli can help deter.

The body needs the immune system to fight off cancer, but unfortunately certain types of cancer can override the immune system, impairing its function. With the discovery of selenium's blocking capabilities, researchers are on the right track towards finding ways to slow down overexpression in cancer cases. The results of the study is a small step, but it is a step forward towards developing better cancer treatments with fewer serious side effects.

The study received support from the Danish Council for Independent Research and the European Marie Curie Initial Training Network. Aside from Skov, other authors include: Bente Gammelgaard, Lars Ellgaard, Charlotte Gabel-Jensen, Lars Andresen, Stephanie Kehlet, Franziska Uhlenbrock, and Michael Hagemann-Jensen.

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