A discovery funded by Worldwide Cancer Research Curestarters could lead to better immunotherapies that work for more patients. Find out more.

Exciting new breakthrough could lead to vital improvements in immunotherarapies

6th June 2024

Research funded by our Curestarters has resulted in a new breakthrough that could lead to improved immunotherapies - a type of cancer treatment that has the potential to be transformational, but that currently doesn't work for many patients. Researchers at the University of Birmingham investigated the role of 'natural killer cells', and what happens to them when they enter the tumour environment, resulting in a new understanding of how cancer interacts with our immune system.

What is immunotherapy?

Your body’s immune system naturally fights cancer - immune cells keep us safe by killing individual cancerous cells before they can develop into something larger. But sometimes cancer cells can multiply so fast, our immune system can’t keep up. They also often develop mutations which allow them to hide from, or switch off, our immune response.

Immunotherapies aim to wake up our immune systems to be able to tackle cancer cells again. Several immunotherapies are currently used to treat certain types of cancer, but right now, these treatments only seem to work in a minority of patients. We still don't completely understand why this is the case, so a better understanding of how the immune system interacts with cancer cells is crucial to developing more effective treatments.

Learn more about immunotherapy

Exploring a promising possibility for new immunotherapies

Most currently used immunotherapies target a type of immune cell called a T cell. But T cells can only recognise certain types of cancer cells, and so these therapies won’t work for all cancers. T cells also don’t work alone - they need help from other immune cells to be effective. One such type of immune cell, called 'natural killer' or NK cells, is a promising possibility for new immunotherapies.

A collaborative project led by PhD researcher Isaac Dean and Professor David Withers aimed to track what happens to these NK cells over time, using an innovative method of labelling, to see how they could be used to combat cancer more effectively. This labelling allowed the researchers to discover that the NK cells rapidly lose their anti-cancer functions once inside a tumour - within 24 hours, the tumour cells can completely re-programme the immune cells. 

This presented a problem - how could NK cells be harnessed in immunotherapy if they lose their ability to kill cancer cells once they enter a tumour? But incredibly, Professor Withers and his team also discovered a way to give NK cells back their cancer-killing abilities. 

Reviving the 'natural killer' cells

While looking for ways to reverse the changes to NK cells, Professor Withers and his team investigated a protein called Interleukin 15, or IL-15. This protein plays an important role in our immune response, as it activates both T and NK cells. The team found that IL-15 was able to 'wake up' the NK cells inside the tumours and re-enable their anti-cancer functions, allowing them to gain control over tumour growth.

The potential for using IL-15 to enhance immunotherapy has been proposed before, and several clinical trials are already underway to test how effective it could be in combination with other drugs. This new research provides important insight into how this might work, opening up new possibilities for ways to improve existing immunotherapies. 

Read the original paper here

This is a breakthrough in our understanding of cancer and the immune system. 

But our researchers won't stop here. They will also work with leading industry experts, using the models from their research to accelerate the progress of new immunotherapies. This will help further understanding of precisely how treatments work, so that those that progress to the next stage of drug development really are working as expected. Developing therapies is a long process and it’s vital that no time is wasted progressing drugs that ultimately won’t solve the problem. By working together, the researchers will ensure that time is well spent and leads to new, effective cures. None of this would be possible without the incredible Curestarters who support our bold discovery research.

David Withers Professor David Withers
I hope that our basic research can support the development of treatments that genuinely improve the outcomes for cancer patients.
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