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New research insight into the power of our immune system to fight cancer

Posted by: Research 4 March 2016

Research has been widely reported in the media today reporting new insight into how our immune system might be able to recognise unique markings within a tumour, allowing the body to fight against cancer. It is thought that the findings could guide the development of future immunotherapy treatments and improve the way existing immunotherapy drugs are used.

Immunotherapy is an area of research showing great promise for treating cancer, including pancreatic cancer. It works by harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system and using it to fight against cancer cells.

In order for immune cells to destroy cancer cells, they first need to be able to recognise them as different to healthy cells (in order to avoid healthy cells also being destroyed). All cells in the body display samples of the proteins they produce on their surface. As a tumour develops the proteins it produces change. These new proteins can be used by immune cells as a ‘flag’ to recognise the cells as cancerous rather than healthy. As cancer cells grow, there are more and more changes and therefore more and more different proteins displayed in different parts of the tumour. This means that there are lots of different flags for immune cells to recognise. Knowing which flag might be the best for a new immunotherapy treatment to recognise is a major challenge in ensuring that a treatment is effective in killing off as much of the tumour as possible.

In this research, conducted at University College London and published in the journal ‘Science’, the team looked at samples from patients with lung cancer and found that some of the flags represented the very earliest mutations of the disease and were displayed on all cells in the tumour, rather than a subset of tumour cells. The hope is that our immune system could be used to target this flag and therefore destroy all of the cancer cells in a tumour.

Leanne Reynolds, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, commented: “This research gives important new information about the complexities of how cancer develops and changes, and how we might be able to harness the power of our immune system to fight against it. This could mean in the future that we are able to develop powerful new immunotherapy treatments and understand more about which particular patients might be able to benefit from them.

We must be cautious however, as this is early research in the lab and there is a long way to go before this new insight could be used to benefit people affected by diseases such as pancreatic cancer. This work could open new avenues of research to help us discover who is most likely to benefit from new immunotherapy treatments, which would be incredibly important for people affected by pancreatic cancer as currently just five per cent of people live for five years or more after diagnosis. Finding ways to ensure that patients are provided with the most effective treatments is therefore vital.”