JUN 24, 2017 12:10 PM PDT

Scientists Identify New Targets for Lung Cancer Immunotherapy


Our immune system has an extraordinary capacity to fight pathogens and protect the body. Indeed, some immune cells can fend off even cancer cells. Now, a recent study found that high levels of an immune T-cell can predict better outcomes for patients with lung cancer. The results could lead to immunotherapies that would enhance this body’s attack on cancer.

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Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other type of cancer. In 2016, over 224,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease does not discriminate between males and females, striking both sexes with equal voracity. About 70 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer will succumb to the disease. This high mortality is contributed, in large, because the cancer is often detected at an advanced stage when treatment is not as effective.

In search of better treatment options for lung cancer patients, researchers at the University of Southampton and La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, California, turned to the immune system. When the researchers analyzed levels of immune cells in lung cancer patients, they found a striking pattern. Specifically, patients with high levels of immune cells, called tissue-resident memory T-cells, were 34 percent less likely to succumb to the cancer.

The team explored the link further, and asked how presence of these immune cells affected lung cancer growth. They found that these cells had active cancer-fighting behavior. In particular, these memory T-cells ‘took up residency’ in cancer growths and conferred protection to the body. They also triggered the production of other immune cells and molecules to help the body attack the cancer cells.

Researchers say the findings could usher in a new generation of immunotherapy-driven treatments for lung cancer patients. In particular, synthetic version of the specialized T-cells could help boost a patient's’ own immune response against the lung cancer. Or, for those who have low levels of these T-cells, the synthetic form would give their immune system a fighting chance. In addition, doctors could tailor specific therapies to patients based on the levels of their immune T-cells.

"These are hugely exciting results. For the first time we have a real indication of who might benefit from a particular drug before we make treatment decisions. So far when we use immunotherapy we do not know if a patient will benefit. The new findings are a big step towards making this exciting treatment much more predictable,” said Professor Christian Ottensmeier, Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Southampton, and the study’s senior author.

"Our results will also make the treatment pathway more reassuring for our patients. And if we can translate our finding into clinical practice, then we will also save patients unnecessary side effects and reduce costs to the NHS."

"The immune system can play a powerful role in fighting lung cancer, and this research sheds more light on the interplay between cancer, our immune system, and immunotherapies,” said Justine Alford, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK. “...research like this is crucial to understanding why some people with lung cancer respond well to treatment and, in future, could guide more personalized treatments for patients."

Additional source: Cancer Research UK

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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