Gaining control over cancer

University College London

Scientific research suggests that your immune system can protect you against cancer.

As a consequence, treatments – called immunotherapies – have been developed in which your own immunity is targeted against your cancer.

Unfortunately, immunotherapy doesn’t always work. Researchers have identified that immunotherapy works for ‘hot’ tumours but not for ‘cold’ tumours. A tumour’s ‘hotness’ is defined by its visibility to immunity through a system referred to as innate immunity.

Making tumours ‘hot’ is expected to make immunotherapy work for more patients.

A recent collaboration between UCL’s Department of Infection and the UCL Cancer Institute has discovered that ‘hot’ signatures can be driven by mimicking infection. We expect that by developing this collaboration, we will combine our understanding of innate immunity with our understanding of cancer to make transformational discoveries.

This research project funded by EET aims to understand the link between innate immune activation, tumour formation and outcome, particularly in the context of immunotherapy.

The project will examine how immunity works against cancer and how cancer evolves to escape immunity. The knowledge will underpin future therapeutic development to enhance natural and immunotherapy treatments.

How cancers evolve to escape immunity

Understanding biology, including cancer, cancer development and progression, requires an evolutionary perspective because cancers evolve to escape your immune system.

Cancers change their genetic code by mutation. This allows them to become invisible to natural immunity and resistant to chemotherapies and immunotherapies. For example, when the cancer treatment starts, if a small number of cells in the cancer are immune to the therapy because of their mutations, they will grow back after treatment and can spread to other parts of the body.

Activating our anti-cancer immunity

The goal of immunotherapy is to retarget natural patient anti-cancer immunity against their tumour. This approach is immensely powerful because it harnesses millions of years’ worth of immune system evolution against the tumour.

Immune systems are complex and not fully understood, but by targeting them against cancer using immunotherapy, we can revolutionise cancer care. It’s all about understanding how immunity against cancer works and using that new knowledge to improve immunotherapy.

The research team at UCL have contributed to a recent study to suggest that triggering innate immunity in cancer is a natural response which activates anti-cancer immunity.

Building on this knowledge, and with initial funding from the EET, the team plan to measure innate immune signatures – normally associated with infection – in cancer. They plan to examine whether these signatures are associated with particular aspects of cancer progression and particular outcomes, good or bad.

The aim of the research is to understand how innate immunity contributes to cancer and what goes wrong with innate immunity when cancer occurs.

“Working with EET has been very thought provoking, encouraging us to think how our cutting-edge science influences our teaching and our public and patient engagement.”

Professor Greg Towers, Division of Infection and Immunity, UCL

Growing hope

The key learnings from this research have the potential to transform our understanding of cancer mechanisms. Direct applications could include new therapeutics possibilities that activate innate immunity in tumours to make them more visible to natural immunity and more sensitive to immunotherapy.

In the future, cancer care will be revolutionised by immunotherapy, and we hope to make a contribution to this by understanding the role of innate immunity.

Impact at a glance

  • A new way to think about innate immunity, what it’s for and how it works
  • Interdisciplinary collaborative research that leads to better understanding of innate immune signatures in cancer
  • Knowledge will underpin future therapeutic development with potential to revolutionise cancer care

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