Leukemia inhibitory factor can either boost or slow cancer cell growth, depending on the type of cancer. It may have future uses in stem cell transplants, treating cancer, and as a cancer biomarker. Research is ongoing.

Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) is a protein involved in multiple vital processes in your body.

Some of the known processes LIF controls include:

  • growth and development of a baby in the uterus
  • regeneration of your tissues, such as after an injury
  • immune response, or your body’s reaction to a pathogen

This article explores what LIF is, its role in cancer, and how doctors can target it to treat cancer.

LIF is a cytokine. Cytokines are small molecules made of proteins. Many cells release cytokines to speed up or slow down your immune response and other bodily processes.

LIF was originally named for its ability to boost the differentiation of leukemia cancer cells in the lab. But it’s involved in controlling multiple other bodily processes.

Cells that release LIF include:

What is cell differentiation?

A cell differentiates when it develops into a specialized type of cell with a specific function.

An example is an egg, which begins its journey as one giant cell. When an egg is fertilized, it divides many times to form a cluster of cells.

As these cells continue to grow and divide, they differentiate (or mature) into different types of cells, such as muscle cells, nerve cells, and skin cells. Mature cells typically don’t divide as often as undifferentiated cells.

In the first experiments with LIF, researchers used leukemia cancer cells. Cancer cells are not differentiated. But when researchers added LIF to these cells, they began differentiating. This made it hard for the tumor to keep growing.

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LIF is a very unusual molecule because it can both boost and slow cancer growth. Researchers have yet to figure out how exactly this happens, but they know LIF works differently depending on the cancer type.

Some cancers produce LIF, which boosts tumor growth. Researchers observed this in breast, bone, cervical, and some other cancer types.

But in other cancers, LIF can have the opposite effect. For example, in a 2019 study on stomach cancer, LIF production in cancer cells was lower than in healthy cells. This means stomach cancer cells needed to lower the amount of LIF to keep dividing. Researchers observed similar trends in thyroid cancer cells.

LIF and stem cell transplants

People with blood cancers, such as leukemia, often undergo stem cell transplants as part of treatment. But this procedure has risks, including a condition called graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). GVHD may result in transplant rejection.

Some studies suggest that LIF can help protect against GVHD. Although more research is needed, these findings may point to a potential treatment strategy for people with blood cancers who need a stem cell transplant.

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Because LIF can have different functions in different cancer types, it’s important to understand its role in your condition.

Some studies suggest that blocking LIF may help treat some cancers, like certain types of pancreatic cancer. But more research is needed before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can approve these therapies.

Researchers are also investigating whether doctors can use LIF as a cancer biomarker. Biomarkers are molecules cancer cells produce. Different tumors make different biomarkers. Doctors measure biomarker levels to determine which treatment is best for a particular type of cancer.

For example, a 2021 study showed that high levels of LIF in a tumor may indicate that you should not receive treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors. Still, more research is needed to ensure doctors use LIF as a reliable biomarker.

If you have cancer, be sure to discuss the role of LIF in your specific condition with your healthcare team. They can help you understand how LIF may affect your cancer and whether blocking LIF is a viable treatment strategy.

LIF is a cytokine that plays a crucial role in regulating multiple bodily processes. Research has linked LIF to cancer, but it may have different functions in different cancer types.

Blocking LIF may treat certain cancers. It also has the potential to become a cancer biomarker. In addition, LIF may prevent GVHD after stem cell transplantation in people with blood cancers.

Talk with a healthcare professional to learn more about LIF and how it may affect your cancer.