18 April 2016
Dr Michael A Curran, Assistant Professor at the Department of Immunology of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Texas is the latest high-profile visitor to the Malaghan Institute.
His post-doctoral work was in the laboratory of Dr James P Allison, who discovered the protein called CTLA-4; a protein which when activated on T cells effectively turns them off. This 1995 discovery was a huge step in immunology as it identified the immune systems natural brake and opened the door for further research into auto-immune diseases where the body attacks itself. It also opened up the potential to target this protein to inhibit a cancers ability to turn off immune cell attack. In 2013 when the Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy the breakthrough of the year, they cited Dr Allisons work as central to recent progress in the field. The combination of ipilimumab (anti-CTLA-4) and nivolumab (anti-PD-1) has now been tested in patients with advanced melanoma and lung cancer in several trials, with impressive results.
Fast forward 21 years and Dr Curran has started his own research group. He is particularly interested in why some cancers pancreatic and prostrate are resistant to the infiltration of T cells into the tumours microenvironment and therefore resistant to the checkpoint blockades therapies.
He explains, Hypoxia and an acidic environment are known to occur in regions of solid tumours. It is a driving force for the establishment of immune suppression and T cell exclusion. We seek to remove this hypoxia thereby making tumours accessible to the immune system and, thus, sensitive to immunotherapies.
Dr Curran first met Associate Professor Ian Hermans and Dr Lindsay Ancelet in New York at the the Inaugural International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference last year and it was this which prompted him to visit New Zealand and the Malaghan Institute for the first time. He says, We have common interests and it is mutually beneficial for us to share findings to strengthen our work. Globally there are a few people concentrating on this novel approach to reduce hypoxia to make cancer immunotherapies more effective, but teamwork is key. In todays world, it is hard to do meaningful science or achieve meaningful outcomes for patients without a team. Teamwork and therapeutic combinations will bring us closer to delivering curative cancer responses to a majority of patients.