Cancer Is Like The Borg

With the recent passing of Lenard Nimoy aka Spock, I have been having Star Trek déjà vu. I confess that I am a Trekker not to be confused with a Trekkie. It was in this framework that I attended a recent seminar on the latest research on breast cancer.

We create cancer cells all the time. It is the job of our immune system, specifically T cells, to get rid of the cancer cells or these so-called deformities. When our immune system is weak, sometimes the cancer cells go undetected and slip by.

I learned how this can happen on a mico-level of proteins. When the protein on the T-cell known as PD-1 binds to the cancer, the cancer protein renders the T cells invisible much like a cloaking device. The cancer cell in effect assimilates the T-cells like the Borg. They call this protein on cancer cells PD – L1 or “Programmed death-ligand 1” and the protein on the T-cell, “PD-1 or Programmed Cell Death.”

Now you know why I am using the Star Trek analogy–it all sounds very sci-fi. It amuses me to find out that I have my own science-fiction series going on inside my left breast! Intergalactic warfare was being waged and I have missed several episodes. Bummer, I can’t go back and watch it on Hulu, either.

On Star Trek Next Gen, captain Picard was assimilated by the Borg. Once assimilated, he could go longer function as the captain of the Star Trek enterprise anymore. This is what PD-L1 does to T cells. Resistance is futile and Picard becomes one with the Borg and the hive mind. They fundamentally change the T cells so that the other T cells not are not able to recognize it anymore. This allows the cancer to continue to grow undetected.

capt picard as borg

The good news is that there are drugs that are currently being developed to block PD-L1: a way to stop the Borg from assimilating T-cells. Although still in its early stages, the trials look promising.

In the end, Picard is saved by his crew and returns as captain of the Enterprise. If they can do it on Star Trek, I’m sure we will too.

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