In a major breakthrough for cancer treatments, a QIMR Berghofer scientist and his team have discovered that a key protein on the surface of immune cells helps to camouflage cancer, offering a new treatment target.
Principal investigator, Professor Mark Smyth, has shown that the CD96 protein prevents the body’s natural immune cells from responding to cues from cancer cells.
“Every day, our bodies fight off cancer, because our Natural Killer cells – or NKs – instantly recognise cancer cells as alien, and destroy them,” Professor Smyth said.
“But we’ve discovered that NKs have the CD96 protein on their surface, and this protein stops NKs from being overactivated. Essentially, the cancer hijacks this process to prevent immune recognition and activation, allowing the cancer to spread through the body.”
“What this discovery provides us with is a clear path for new treatments for advanced cancers, because we can develop an antibody to block CD96, now that we know it is an immune checkpoint inhibitor.
“CD96 could potentially be used to treat some of the most deadly forms of cancer including advanced metastatic cancers.”
Immune checkpoint inhibitors are regarded as the most exciting advances in cancer treatments in decades, showing remarkable results in trials across the world.
“Our next, crucial step is to test CD96’s role in human cells and we’d hope to have those results later this year. If all goes to plan, and I must say it is looking promising, we can take the next steps towards human trials,” Professor Smyth said.
“There is still much more to learn, and CD96’s exact function in other diseases to be defined. But it’s now clear that it has an important role to play in cancer’s development, and our work is taking us in exciting directions.”
Professor Mark Smyth heads the Immunology in Cancer and Infection Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer. This study was completed with colleagues from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Washington University School of Medicine.
It is published in today’s edition of Nature Immunology and can be viewed online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ni.2850
This research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia.
About Mark Smyth: Professor Smyth is an eminent and much-published cancer immunologist and holder of the highest level NHMRC award: Australia Research Fellow. He is a member of the Cancer Research Institute’s Academy of Cancer Immunology and the European Academy of Tumour Immunology.
About immune checkpoints: Immune checkpoints are proteins that prevent the human immune system from attacking our own healthy cells. Cancer cells often hijack immune checkpoints to evade the immune response. Scientists are now using antibodies to bind to and switch off selected checkpoints, re-activating the immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells. Immune checkpoints have recently emerged as the hottest area in oncology, promising to deliver unprecedented benefits to patients, particularly those with advanced cancers for which there are currently no effective treatments.