Evolution may be the key to understanding immunity—or at least the National Institutes of Health (NIH) thinks so. Studies of the history of human life could uncover discoveries that have implications for all types of disease, including cancer.
In an April 2021 blog post, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, featured a team of biochemists at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City that is picking apart the question of how innate immunity has evolved in all living things to discover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system. The team will dig through 450 million years of evolution, when animals developed distinct methods of innate immune defense, to “uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable.”
From there, the team plans to determine whether their findings can be further used to boost the human body’s response to internal threats, such as cancer. By “mixing and matching immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time,” the team says it has the potential “to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease.”
With funding from a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, the team will research innate immune checkpoints in animals to help identify “a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over” that might be repurposed today. The findings would enable clinician-scientists to learn more about tumors and immune responses, apply new research to help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution, and test newly identified immune switches to look for ways to fight cancer where existing approaches were unsuccessful.