Blog by Sophie Lutter

19 Mar 2015

I don’t mean to get all natural-sources, no-added-sugar here, but sometimes nature really does know best. When it comes to cancer, though, it still needs a helping hand. That’s basically the premise and the promise of cancer immunotherapy – finding a way to get your body to beat cancer itself.

Sounds pretty cool, right? But I want to be 100 per cent clear – this is a lot more complicated than drinking more orange juice to try and give your immune system a kick when you feel a cold coming on. It’s an up-and-coming, very promising, area of prostate cancer research.

We’ve been supporting projects in this area, with funding from The Movember Foundation for a few years now. So it’s about time for a round-up of what some of our researchers have been up to.

Immunotherapy research projects we're supporting

Dr Sophie Papa: Prolonging immune cell survival and reducing toxicity in prostate cancer immunotherapy

You may remember that we’ve talked about Dr Papa’s research before. We gave her a Pilot award to test her idea about how to overcome two of the main problems associated with immunotherapy in prostate cancer. The first problem she wanted to tackle is that it’s very hard for T-cells (a type of immune cell) to survive long enough near the prostate tumour to attack the cancer cells. The other problem is that the side effects of immunotherapy can be quite severe.

Dr Papa’s idea goes like this: she thought that a type of immunotherapy treatment (called CAR-based immunotherapy), where a patient’s T-cells are adapted to specifically target the prostate tumour, would help reduce side-effects, because the T-cells’ activity would only be directed to the cancer cells.

She wants to combine this with a protein drug called FAB4 (no, nothing to do with The Beatles). It is made up of one protein that secretes a chemical signal to help the T-cell population expand and survive, and another that directs this survival signal to the area around the prostate cancer cells. This would mean that the survival signal is always active near the T-cells, which should help keep them alive long enough to attack the cancer cells.

Is it working and what’s next?

The results from Dr Papa’s pilot award were really promising, and helped her get a bigger grant from the Medical Research Council to take this process into a clinical trial within the next four years.

Dr Christine Galustian: boosting the immune system at the frontline of prostate cancer

Dr Christine Galustian has a similar ambition to Dr Papa, but she used her Pilot award to test the idea of directly injecting the tumour site with chemical signals that boost the immune system. These signals are attached to something that anchors the signals to the cancer cell, which Dr Galustian has called ‘sticky tails’. This would both help the immune cells survive in the tumour environment and reduce side effects, because the ‘sticky tails’ would limit the effect to the cancer site.

Is it working and what’s next?

Dr Galustian found that injecting a mixture of three different chemical signals with ‘sticky tails’ could clear prostate tumours in mice. Now she plans to test this system further in mice before hopefully taking this into clinical trials in the next few years.

Dr Deborah Enting: Re-energising the immune system after long-term drug treatment

Dr Enting is using her Prostate Cancer UK-Medical Research Council Clinical Training Fellowship to study the effect of long term treatment with a drug called zoledronate on the immune system’s ability to fight prostate cancer.

Immune cells produce a receptor (a type of protein) called NKG2D. This prompts them to kill prostate cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells alone. When men whose prostate cancer has spread to the bones are treated with zoledronate to strengthen their bones, it also boosts levels of NKG2D, which helps the immune system fight the cancer.

But Dr Enting found that when men take zoledronate for a long time, NKG2D levels stop being boosted and the immune system gets ‘exhausted’. Dr Enting is investigating whether she can re-energise the immune system in these men by injecting them with a chemical signal called IL2. She’s going to compare the immune status of men who get IL2 injections and men who don’t, to see if this affects how active men’s immune system is after long-term zoledronate treatment.

Is it working and what’s next?

If Dr Enting sees a difference between the two groups of men, she hopes to continue this work to see what effect kick-starting the immune system like this has on the men’s prostate cancer.

How close are we to seeing immunotherapy treatments offered to men?

All of this research, and that we described in our news story, ‘Can we use the body’s own defence force to fight prostate cancer behind enemy lines?’ is adding to a growing body of evidence suggesting that harnessing the immune system to fight prostate cancer could lead to a big step forward in delivering new types of treatment to men with the disease. But we’re not there yet.

There are still obstacles to overcome and complications to work around, but as the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Our researchers, as part of Men United, are doing great things together, and their efforts are bringing us ever closer to beating prostate cancer. But we need to continue to support researchers working in this exciting and potentially groundbreaking area.

comments powered by Disqus