Search and destroy: Engineering immune cells to hunt down cancer

14th September 2022

Our researchers in Italy have made a breakthrough that could lead to better, more effective immunotherapy options for cancer patients. This important discovery involves engineering a specific type of immune cell to target and kill cancer cells. Not only that, it is possible to boost that ability with a drug delivered with nanotechnology to make it even more effective.

Dr Giulia Casorati (second from left) and her research team

Adoptive cell therapy (also called adoptive immunotherapy, or cellular immunotherapy) is a type of cancer therapy that works by harnessing the cells of our immune system to eliminate cancer cells. This modern treatment approach has proven effective for some cancers such as melanoma, at least temporarily, but it doesn’t work well for many other cancers.

Dr Giulia Casorati and her team at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy, wanted to try and solve this puzzle and make adoptive immunotherapy work for more patients. They set out to develop a new technique to make this happen, that would genetically engineer immune cells to recognise and kill cancer cells.

In this noteworthy study, Dr Casorati and team focused on a particular type of immune cell called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT cells). These cells are a normal part of the human immune system – they combat cancer cells by killing other ‘bad’ immune cells that would help the cancer grow.

The researchers engineered a special version of iNKT cells in mice to be able to detect new types of cells, by adding something called a T cell receptor (TCR). They did so in several mouse models of cancer, including melanoma, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer.

Close up of a scientist's hands using a syringe in a lab

As they had hoped, this gave the iNKT cells the power to directly kill cancer cells, on top of their normal ability to deal with other immune cells. In fact, the engineered iNKT cells slowed the growth of some tumours – and even cured some less aggressive ones.

But work didn’t stop there. Dr Casorati and her team found that they could boost this effect even further using a known drug called alpha-Galactosyl Ceramide (or alpha-GalCer). This drug was originally derived from a type of sea sponge, and is known to boost anti-tumour immune activity.

To make this approach even more effective, the researchers used nanotechnology to precisely deliver the drug to the site of the tumour, which made the anti-tumour effect of the treatment stronger and helped the iNKT cells do an even better job at killing cancer cells.

Casorati Dr Giulia Casorati, Worldwide Cancer Research scientist who led the research
We have shown that it is possible to improve adoptive cell therapy with engineered immune cells that have a strong intrinsic anti-tumour activity. We hope we have laid the foundations for an innovative approach of adoptive cell therapy of cancer, hopefully more efficient than the current ones.

With further testing, these remarkable findings could go on to benefit patients with both solid tumours and blood cancers. In fact, this discovery supports work that is already in clinical trials. This could help speed up the process of making this treatment available to patients.

As for Dr Casorati and her team, their next focus will be to target the treatment for patients with leukaemia specifically. Almost 440,000 new cases of leukaemia are diagnosed worldwide every year, and less than half of these patients survive more than 10 years after their diagnosis. For those that do, many go on to develop the disease again further down the line, so innovative treatments like this that help your immune system hunt down cancer cells could be a new lifeline.

Dr Gabriela De Sousa, Science Communication Officer at Worldwide Cancer Research
These promising results will give many people hope that innovative new cancer treatments are making their way down the research pipeline. By supporting cutting-edge discovery research like this and building on our knowledge of cancer, we can lay the foundation for future cancer cures. We are incredibly grateful to all of our Curestarters, whose support makes this possible.

Become a Curestarter today and join us in supporting pioneering cancer researchers like Dr Casorati.


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