Radiotherapy and chemotherapy currently used to treat breast cancer can have harmful side effects. Researchers are developing new therapies that aim to stimulate the body’s immune system to attack and kill breast cancer cells, called ‘immunotherapies’. However, our immune system is taught not to attack our own body cells, and immunity to cancer is generally poor because cancer cells develop from, and look like, our own normal cells.
Breast cancer cells produce a protein called MAGE A3 which is not produced by normal cells. Fragments of the MAGE-A3 protein called peptides are displayed on the surface of the breast cancer cell, where they can be recognised by cells of the immune system called killer T cells. Killer T cells that recognise MAGE A3 would normally attack the cell producing it. However, they are taught not to attack the cells of our own body, including breast cancer cells. This self-tolerance is a real problem for the development of effective immunotherapies against cancer.
Prof Sewell’s research will make clever use of altered super peptides from MAGE A3 to get around self-tolerance. He aims to induce killer T-cells from blood donors to attack breast cancer cells in the lab. The long-term aim is to develop an effective breast cancer vaccine to allow the immune system to naturally eradicate breast cancer cells in the patient’s body without harmful side effects.
What difference will this project make?
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy for breast cancer can have harmful and unavoidable side effects. An effective immunotherapy would improve the chances of survival and have minimal side effects, greatly improving quality of life for patients.
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