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Magnesium is essential to fight against cancer

The ability of the immune system to combat infections and cancer cells is influenced by the amount of magnesium in the blood. T cells require a sufficient amount of magnesium to function successfully, according to researchers from the University of Basel and University Hospital Basel, who published their findings in the journal Cell. Their discoveries could have a big impact on cancer sufferers.

Magnesium shortage has been linked to a number of illnesses, including infections and cancer. Previous research has found that when mice were fed a low-magnesium diet, malignant growths propagated faster in their tissues, and their protection against flu viruses was also compromised. However, little research has been done on how this mineral impacts the immune system specifically. 

T cells can only effectively eliminate abnormal or infected cells in a magnesium-rich environment, according to researchers led by Professor Christoph Hess of the University of Basel's Department of Biomedicine and University Hospital Basel, as well as the University of Cambridge's Department of Medicine. Magnesium, in particular, is required for the function of LFA-1, a T cell surface protein.

LFA-1 serves as a docking site for T lymphocytes, which is important for their activation. "However, this docking site is in a bent shape in the inactive state and hence cannot efficiently bind to infected or aberrant cells," Christoph Hess adds. "This is when magnesium enters the picture. Magnesium attaches to LFA-1 in the presence of sufficient amounts of magnesium in the proximity of T cells, ensuring that it remains in an extended — and hence active — configuration."

Findings that could be crucial for cancer patients

The discovery that magnesium is required for T cell function could have major implications for present cancer immunotherapies. These treatments try to activate the immune system, namely cytotoxic T cells, in order to combat cancer cells. The researchers were able to demonstrate that an increase in the local magnesium concentration in tumours improved the immune response of T cells against cancer cells in experimental models.

"We're currently looking for strategies to boost the concentration of magnesium in tumours in a targeted manner in order to test this observation clinically," Christoph Hess adds. Further analyses conducted by the research team working with Christoph Hess and his Postdoc, Dr. Jonas Lötscher, main author of the study, reveal the potential nature of these tactics. The researchers were able to establish that immunotherapies were less successful in individuals with low magnesium levels in their blood using data from previously completed cancer patient studies.

According to Lötscher, the question of whether regular magnesium intake affects the risk of developing cancer cannot be answered based on current data. "As a next step, we're planning prospective studies to see if magnesium can be used as an immune system catalyst."


Jonas Lötscher, Adrià-Arnau Martí i Líndez, Nicole Kirchhammer, Elisabetta Cribioli, Greta Giordano, Marcel P. Trefny, Markus Lenz, Sacha I. Rothschild, Paolo Strati, Marco Künzli, Claudia Lotter, Susanne H. Schenk, Philippe Dehio, Jordan Löliger, Ludivine Litzler, David Schreiner, Victoria Koch, Nicolas Page, Dahye Lee, Jasmin Grählert, Dmitry Kuzmin, Anne-Valérie Burgener, Doron Merkler, Miklos Pless, Maria L. Balmer, Walter Reith, Jörg Huwyler, Melita Irving, Carolyn G. King, Alfred Zippelius, Christoph Hess. Magnesium sensing via LFA-1 regulates CD8 T cell effector function. Cell, 2022; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.12.039

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