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February 10, 2021 Wednesday 11:53:12 AM IST

Glasgow scientists working to develop new immunotherapy for breast cancer

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Leading researchers at the University of Glasgow are investigating how the immune system might be used to stop breast cancer from spreading and becoming incurable. While the pandemic is significantly impacting medical research, vital breast cancer research is continuing in Scotland under a team, led by Dr Seth Coffelt, which is investigating how the immune system, and a specific type of white blood cell, can help breast cancer to spread throughout the body, in a bid to find new ways to prevent the disease from becoming incurable.

The study aims to understand how breast cancer tricks the immune system into helping it to grow and spread, which could eventually lead to the development of new immunotherapy treatments. This is a three-year project, with the first two years already funded by breast cancer research charity Secondary 1st.

The immune system is the body’s major defence mechanism that seeks out and destroys foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, to keep us healthy and ward off disease. In recent years, scientists have made significant breakthroughs in immunotherapy which involve reprogramming the immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

New immunotherapies are already being used to treat patients with melanoma and kidney cancers, but the development of safe and effective immunotherapies for breast cancer has lagged behind.

Dr Seth Coffelt at the University of Glasgow has recently found that a type of white blood cell, called gamma delta T cells, can help breast cancer spread throughout the body by suppressing the immune system and preventing it from destroying cancer cells. He and his team believe that the breast cancer tumour may be turning these cells on, but it is not yet clear exactly how this happens.

Research over recent years has suggested that gamma delta T cells can play two roles in cancer – a cancer-supporting role and a role in protecting against cancer. The researchers hope that this project could help to identify how we can turn off the cancer-supporting function and turn on the anti-tumour function of gamma delta T cells.

Dr Coffelt’s team have also discovered that gamma delta T cells make large amounts of a molecule called NKG2D, and they are now investigating how NKG2D is turned on and what role it plays.

The researchers are studying how the behaviour of the immune system changes when breast cancer spreads to organs such as the lungs in mice. They are tracking where immune cells can be found, and whether stimulating NKG2D affects the spread of the disease.

It is hoped that this research could lead to the creation of new immunotherapies for breast cancer which can retrain gamma delta T cells and the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.