Study helps clarify role of T cells in follicular lymphoma

The researchers' findings could lead to new treatments for this type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

A study led by Mayo Clinic researchers Zhi Zhang Yang, M.D., and Stephen M. Ansell, M.D., Ph.D., has found that healthy white blood cells called T cells could play a crucial role in fighting follicular lymphoma. Their study results were published in the journal Cell Reports.

Photo of Zhi Zhang Yang, M.D.
Zhi Zhang Yang, M.D.

Follicular lymphoma is a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that mainly involves the lymph nodes. Although follicular lymphoma is common and has a relatively better prognosis than do certain other cancers, it's not curable, Dr. Yang said. And although many patients respond to treatment, it's common for the cancer to return after treatment.

Photo of Stephen M. Ansell, M.D., Ph.D.
Stephen M. Ansell, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Yang and his colleagues were interested in understanding why some patients with follicular lymphoma fare better than do other patients. Their study found that patients who had a poor immune response to the cancer exhibited a reduction in costimulatory receptors on their T cells.

"The presence of costimulatory receptors on the cell surface allows the immune system to better recognize and attack cancer cells," Dr. Yang explained. "We also found that among patients with follicular lymphoma, those whose T cells were lacking costimulatory receptors experienced significantly shorter survival than did patients whose T cells exhibited costimulatory receptors."

While this research is preclinical and preliminary, it eventually may have clinical implications. "If we can implement a strategy to restore the expression of costimulatory receptors in patients with this subpopulation of T cells," Dr. Yang said, "we may be able to develop a new therapy for some patients with follicular lymphoma."

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This article was originally published in Forefront, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center's online magazine, which ceased publication in December 2020.