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Scope 45 - A Natural Way to Awaken the Immune Response

22 July 2011

The immune system has all the properties that are required to detect cancer and control its progression.

Immunotherapy holds great promise for cancer treatment - immune cells are specific and can discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have potent ‘killing’ capacity and can also travel to different tissues to eliminate all traces of disease. However, the immune system of a cancer patient can co-exist in equilibrium with their cancer for many years without any signs of immune activation. 

Several research groups at the Malaghan Institute are investigating different strategies for reawakening these immune cells so that they stimulate an anti-tumour immune response.  The dendritic cell cancer vaccine that is currently being used in a phase I clinical trial for the treatment of patients with glioblastoma multiforme is one such example of this, however other approaches are also being evaluated.

PhD student Sabine Kuhn has been investigating the ability of various stimuli (adjuvants) to activate the non-responsive immune cells by injecting specific products derived from bacteria and viruses directly into tumours and then analysing the resulting immune responses by flow cytometry.  

In doing so, Sabine discovered that several of the compounds were able to stimulate the activation of immune cells in culture.  Interestingly, these compounds were also able to delay tumour growth and prolong survival in laboratory cancer models, suggesting that natural adjuvants can be used to rescue immune cell function in tumours. 

These adjuvants might eventually become the basis of safe and simple methods for activating the immune system against tumours in patients.