9 October 2019

Scientists have found a collection of specialised immune cells in human breast tissue including one type that are thought to be linked to better survival in people with triple negative breast cancer.  

The research, carried out at the Francis Crick Institute and King's College London, found that these immune cells, called gamma delta T cells, are found in both healthy breast tissue and in breast tumours. These cells have been previously identified in the human gut and skin.

The researchers, part-funded by Breast Cancer Now, found that there are several different varieties of gamma delta cells in the breast, with one of them, called V delta 1, potentially important in breast cancer. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, suggests that triple negative breast cancer patients with higher numbers of these cells in their tumour were more likely to survive than those with low numbers.

The V delta 1 T cells, when turned on, can go on to kill damaged cells or cancer cells and also attract other, more common immune cells to help.

While further research is needed, it is hoped that in the future, exploiting these T cells could help boost the effectiveness of immunotherapies, which are treatments that harness the body’s immune system to help destroy breast cancer cells. 

Dr Kotryna Temcinaite, Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Now, which helped fund the study, said:

“While immunotherapies have proven to be more effective in other types of cancer to date, these findings provide exciting new insight that could lead to the development of new immunotherapies to treat patients with triple negative breast cancer.

“With few targeted treatments available to patients, triple negative breast cancer remains an area of significant unmet need, where new immunotherapies could have a major impact. Greater understanding of the immune cells present in the breast, how they behave and what effect they have on breast cancer cells is vital if we want to treat the disease more effectively and give everyone the best chance of survival.

“We now look forward to further research to uncover how these T cells could be used to treat aggressive forms of the disease. In the meantime, anyone concerned about their breast cancer treatment can call our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.”

The research was published Science Translational Medicine and was supported by Wellcome Trust, Frances Crick, Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust Biomedical Research Centre, National Institute for Health Research, and Breast Cancer Now.