Developing a new model of the immune response to tumours
Professor Stefano Biffo and his team are trying to understand how the environment within a tumour affects the immune system. They hope that creating a model of how immune cells behave within a tumour will provide a useful way to test new immunotherapies and identify personalised medicine for patients.
Hope for the future
Immunotherapies are a recent revolution in cancer treatment that work by prompting the immune system to recognise and eliminate cancer cells. They have provided new cancer cures for some patients that previously had no options left for treatments. However, many patients do not benefit from immunotherapy and we still do not fully understand why this is.
Professor Biffo and his team are studying how the environment within a tumour affects the behaviour of immune cells called tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes, which are known to play a key role in the immune response to cancer. The researchers hope that understanding how the tumour microenvironment affects these cells will help them find new ways to test immunotherapies or provide personalised medicine for patients with many different types of cancer.
Meet the scientist
Professor Stefano Biffo began his cancer research journey in Italy, where he became interested in why some breast cancer patients responded to chemotherapy while others did not. Today, his work investigating the fundamental processes in cells has the potential to help patients with many different types of cancer.
One of the reasons that cancer is so hard to treat is that it can hide from the immune system, meaning it can continue to grow and progress. Tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) are a type of immune cell that are found in or close to tumours, and their presence is often linked to better clinical outcomes after surgery or immunotherapy.
Professor Biffo and his team think that tumours can supress TILs by interfering with the process these cells use to translate genetic instructions from DNA into proteins. Recent research by the team suggests that the environment inside the tumour plays a role in this suppression of TILs. The researchers will now study exactly how tumours are interfering with this process and the effect this has on TILs.
They then hope to use this knowledge, in combination with state-of-the-art techniques, to create an animal-free model that simulates a tumour filled with lymphocytes. If successful, this could provide a new way to test immunotherapies on a more realistic tumour and to identify personalised medicine for patients. This new technique would also remove some of the need for animals in this research, and some of the downsides of existing methods.
The process I am studying is at the edge of our knowledge. Years ago, my lab discovered something that is essential for tumour progression and, with thanks to funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, my lab hopes to develop a way to block its activityProfessor Stefano Biffo
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