Dr Anne Fletcher

Dr Anne Fletcher

Project details

Researcher: Dr Anne Fletcher

Location: University of Birmingham

Project title: Understanding why the immune system does not attack breast cancer cells that have spread

Key area: Secondary breast cancer

The challenge

Although our immune system is fantastic at eliminating many diseases, sometimes it fails to recognise and attack cancer cells. Understanding why and when the immune system doesn’t attack cancer, and trying to reverse this effect, is currently a hot topic in cancer research because harnessing the immune system to attack cancer could save lives.

The science behind the project

Dr Fletcher’s team believes that the immune system’s response to cancer cells may be “turned off”, or suppressed, through an interaction between breast cancer cells and cells that control the activation of the immune system called fibroblastic reticular cells.

This interaction may take place in the lymph nodes – a group of nodes in the underarm where breast cancer cells often spread to first, if they can.

The lymph nodes are one of very few places in the body where the immune system is always partially supressed to stop immune responses like inflammation and swelling from damaging delicate tissue (other places where the immune system is supressed to protect tissue include the testes and eyes).

This suppression of the immune system is controlled by fibroblastic reticular cells, and so they may also be responsible for shutting down the immune system’s response to cancer cells that reach the lymph nodes.

To test out this new idea, the research team will grow cells from the immune system (T-cells) with breast cancer cells, either with or without fibroblastic reticular cells to see what differences there are in the T-cells in both circumstances. They will also use a cutting-edge live-imaging technique to visualise the process of change in T-cells as it happens.

What difference will this project make?

Dr Fletcher believes that, if the results from this grant are positive, they would lay the groundwork for exploring how to target fibroblastic reticular cells, to reverse their suppression of the immune system.

This work is also relevant to all cancers that spread initially to lymph nodes in different parts of the body. As well as breast cancer this includes colorectal, lung and prostate cancers and malignant melanoma (a type of skin cancer).

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