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Scientists discover new way to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy

Researchers have uncovered the key to improving immunotherapy’s ability to stop breast cancer from spreading to the lungs.

Researchers, funded by Breast Cancer Now and Secondary1st, have found a way to potentially improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy.

They discovered that a type of immunotherapy, called a checkpoint inhibitor, could be more effective if an immune cell that prevents it from working is targeted at the same time.

The scientists hope that this new finding could be the first step in uncovering new ways to stop the disease spreading to the lung.

Findings ways to prevent secondary breast cancer

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body it is called secondary (metastatic) breast cancer. Secondary breast cancer currently can't be cured, which is why we need to find new ways to prevent this from happening.

One type of breast cancer treatment is called immunotherapy, which helps the immune system to recognise and fight the disease. Previous work found that a special type of immune cell, called a gamma delta T-cell, can weaken the impact of immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. 

Dr Seth Coffelt and his team at the University of Glasgow built on this work and have now uncovered how gamma delta T cells reduce the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors. 

Tricking the immune system

To investigate how gamma delta T cells influenced immunotherapy, Seth and his team removed gamma delta T cells from mice. They then measured how well checkpoint inhibitors worked.

They found that when mice had no gamma delta T cells, checkpoint inhibitors were more effective at preventing breast cancer cells from spreading to the lungs.

The team believe that breast cancer cells can trick nearby immune cells to release certain molecules. These molecules then tell gamma delta T cells to multiply and make a molecule called IL-17A. Scientists have found that IL-17A can help breast cancer cells and prevent immunotherapy from working properly.

Dr Seth Coffelt, senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow, said: ‘For the first time we’ve managed to pinpoint exactly how gamma delta T cells can prevent immunotherapy from working. While this is early-stage research and we still have a lot of work to do to establish whether these cells work in the same way in women, it’s exciting to see there may potentially be a way to supercharge the effectiveness of immunotherapy treatments and ensure that more people can benefit from them.’

A new way to improve immunotherapy

The team believe that if we can find a way to target gamma delta T cells and IL-17A, it could potentially make checkpoint inihibitor drugs like pembrolizumab more effective. And, prevent breast cancer from spreading in some people.

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, added: ‘It’s vital we develop smarter, more effective treatments for people with breast cancer so these early findings which show how we may be able to boost the power of existing immunotherapy drugs are encouraging.

‘We know just how devastating a diagnosis of secondary (metastatic) breast cancer can be so to be able to help immunotherapy be even more effective at preventing the disease spreading may save lives in the future.’

In the future, Seth wants to assess the levels of IL-17A in triple negative tumours donated by patients. And they want to investigate if the combination of immunotherapy and anti-IL-17A drugs, which are already used for conditions like psoriasis, could provide a new treatment for the disease.

This study was funded by Breast Cancer Now and Secondary1st. 

These discoveries are important steps towards the best possible treatments and support for people affected by the disease.

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