Finding ways to stimulate the immune system to attack breast cancer cells

Dr Demin Li and team

Project details

Researcher: Dr Demin Li

Location: University of Oxford

Project title: Finding ways to stimulate the immune system to attack breast cancer cells

Key area: Treatment

The challenge

New treatments called immunotherapies aim to make the immune system attack cancer cells. However, this has proven difficult as the immune system is designed to avoid attacking the body's own cells.

Project description

The immune system won't normally attack breast cancer cells because it still recognises them as the body's own cells, and therefore ignores them. Various proteins found in the male testicles are often overproduced in breast cancer – this is  because breast cancer cells sometimes produce proteins that normal breast cells wouldn’t. These cancer testis proteins could be used to stimulate the immune system to attack breast cancer, because they are not normally seen by the immune system in women.

The immune system could be trained to recognise breast cancer cells that produce these proteins because the cells display small fragments of the proteins on their surface. However, researchers still need to find which of these fragments best stimulates the immune system to attack breast cancer cells, without it attacking normal cells.

With this project grant, Dr Li will use a variety of techniques to find these fragments, using breast cancer cells grown in the lab and modifying them to produce some of these cancer testis proteins. The breast cancer cells will display fragments of the cancer testis proteins on their surface, and Dr Li and colleagues will collect and analyse these fragments and their ability to stimulate immune cells.

What difference will this project make?

In this innovative project, Dr Li aims to find the cancer testis protein fragments that best stimulate the immune system to attack breast cancer cells, which then could lead to new immunotherapy treatments. The benefit of these treatments is that they could have minimal side effects and would seek out breast cancer cells if they have spread to other parts of the body, improving chances of survival for thousands of patients.


This project is now complete and we’re looking forward to hearing about the findings.


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