Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Monster Munchers

Macrophages – the immune system's 'big eaters' – consume cancer cells and recycle their components

06 October 2020

Monster Munchers

These green stained cells are macrophages – a name that literally means ‘big eater’ in Greek. An important part of the immune system, these cells certainly have a healthy appetite, munching on anything they encounter within the body that doesn’t seem right and needs removing including bacteria, dead cells and debris. Another item on their menu is cancer cells. The red blobs in this image are human bowel cancer cells growing in the lab, which are being eaten up and recycled by macrophages. Curiously, high numbers of macrophages in tumours is usually associated with poorer survival, so they can also help cancer cells grow and spread as well as consuming them. There’s a lot we still need to learn about these big eaters and their cellular appetites, but figuring out how to harness the cancer-fighting powers of macrophages while curbing their cancer-promoting effects could be a powerful way to treat the disease.

Written by Kat Arney

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