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Future Leader: Mark Lawrence

Photo Mark Lawrence

Project titleTaking the brakes off the immune system

Supervisor: Dr Seth Coffelt

Diagnosis at a late stage

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can take a long time, often with many visits to the doctors and possible misdiagnoses along the way. Around 80% of pancreatic cancer patients are not diagnosed until the cancer is at an advanced stage when surgery is no longer possible. At this late stage, pancreatic cancer may have spread to other organs in the body, leaving doctors with few treatment options to offer to patients.

When pancreatic cancer spreads to other organs, this is known as metastasis. There is still a lot we don’t know about how pancreatic cancer spread occurs.

Understanding our immune system

Over the past few years, scientists have begun to learn more about how cells in our immune system, which typically fight off colds and infections, can also play a major role in metastasis – the way that pancreatic cancer spreads to other organs in the body.

Researchers have started to understand that within our immune system there are ‘good’ immune cells that prevent pancreatic cancer from spreading, and other ‘bad’ immune cells that inadvertently help pancreatic cancer to spread.

Taking the brakes off

Previous research has looked into the roles of three particular types of immune cells:

  • Gamma T cells, which seem to help pancreatic cancer to spread to other organs
  • Cytotoxic T cells, which work to prevent pancreatic cancer cells from spreading to other organs
  • Neutrophils, which supress the ‘good’ cytotoxic T cells, putting the brakes on and stopping them from working, thereby promoting metastasis.

Future Leader Mark proposes that by targeting gamma delta T cells and blocking their action, we may be able to take the ‘brake’ off, and allow cytotoxic T cells to stop pancreatic cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

By understanding more about these cells and how they function, Mark hopes that his work could lead to new immunotherapy-based cancer drugs that stop pancreatic cancer from advancing.