Finding ways to make immune cells target cancer cells more effectively

Dr Loredana Saveanu
Project period
Mar 2023 - Feb 2026
Research Institute
University of Trento
Cancer types
General cancer research
Award amount

Project aim

Dr Saveanu and her team are trying to understand how immune cells change after coming into contact with cancer cells.

Hope for the future

Some immune cells can spot problematic cells in our body and destroy them before they become a problem and develop into cancer. Immunotherapy is a relatively new type of cancer treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to kill cancer cells.
However, immunotherapy doesn’t work for every patient – we need to learn more about how immune cells and cancer cells interact to make more effective immunotherapies. Dr Saveanu and her team hope that they can find ways to make existing immunotherapies, like CAR-T cell therapy and immune checkpoint inhibitors, work better for more patients.

Close up of researcher working with samples in a lab

Meet the scientist

Dr Saveanu trained as a medical doctor - realising how little we knew about some of the illnesses causing suffering in her patients made her realise how important fundamental research is. Outside of the lab, Dr Saveanu loves reading – as a child, she finished all of the books in the children’s section of her town’s library!

The science

T cells are a type of immune cell that can recognise cancer cells. They do this by detecting molecules on the surface of the cancer cell with something called a T cell antigen receptor (TCR). When a T cell detects a cancer cell, the TCR triggers a chain reaction of chemical signals in the cell. These can either lead to the cell becoming a ‘killer T cell’, capable of killing the cancer cell, or instead go ‘blind’ to the cancer cell and ignore it.

It is possible to reverse this blindness with treatments like immunotherapy, but how well it works depends on the chemicals that triggered the blindness in the first place. Dr Saveanu and her team have set out to understand how this process works in more detail, so they can make immunotherapies more effective.

They previously found that, when a T cell detects a cancer cell, the TCR (the structure the T cell uses to detect it) moves into the cell and continues to send out signals. The researchers now want to study the signals it gives off once inside the cell, and how they can make T cells become killer T cells and destroy cancer cells.

Preliminary results often generate new hypothesis and testing them is one of the most interesting, rewarding, but also sometimes frustrating part of our job. I am curious about what the latest results can bring and enjoy trying to fit together our results and those published by other teams all over the world.
Dr Loredana Saveanu

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