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Future Leader: Laura Lapienyte

Photo Laura Lapienyte 2

Project titleUnlocking the potential of immunotherapy

Supervisor: Dr Jennifer Morton

The promise of immunotherapy

For many types of cancer we have seen great progress in the development of new drugs and new types of treatment that can substantially improve chances of survival. One area that is generating excitement as a new cancer treatment is immunotherapy. Immunotherapy trials worldwide have resulted in some astonishing and impressive outcomes for some very sick patients with blood cancer – we desperately need to see the same in pancreatic cancer.

Immunotherapy treatments work by harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system and using it to fight against cancer cells. Scientists can design drugs that use a particular part of our immune system called ‘T cells’ to fight against tumours.

A tough barrier to break

Pancreatic cancer is unique to other cancers as it is surrounded by a protective shell called the stroma. This is often very fibrous and dense, forming an impenetrable layer that can account for up to 90% of the tumour volume.

The stroma acts as a barrier that prevents treatments such as immunotherapies from reaching their intended target – the pancreatic cancer cells. For T cell-based immunotherapies, this can happen in two ways:

  • The stroma can act as a physical barrier that prevents the T cells from reaching the cancer cells and killing them
  • Message-like ‘signals’ can be sent out to the T cells which supresses their function, stopping them from hunting down the cancer cells.

A two-pronged attack

Working with Dr Jen Morton, Future Leader Laura will be developing a dual approach to breaking through the protective stroma that surrounds pancreatic cancer cells. She will firstly look at whether she can prevent protein production in the stroma which she thinks could remove the physical barrier it puts up to treatments. Laura will then also explore how to prevent or block the signals that tell immunotherapy treatments to stop working.

Laura hopes that these two strategies combined could unlock the promise that immunotherapy holds for pancreatic cancer.