The challenge

Our immune system can identify cancer cells that need destroying because of special molecules that are present on their surface, known as tumour antigen peptides. Specialist immune cells that act like guided missiles can seek out and kill cancer cells which display these specific molecules. Unfortunately, one of the methods that cancer cells use to survive, is by hiding them. We need to know as much as possible about these tumour antigen peptides and how the immune system identifies them so that we can design better therapies in the future

The science behind the project

Dr Powis and other scientists have discovered that breast cancer cells release small packages with antigen peptides attached to their surface. However, it isn’t clear whether this is good or bad for the cancer. The peptides on these packages could be providing a suitable way for the immune system to recognise and kill the cancer cells, but they might instead have the effect of setting off an immune response far away from the tumour, and so protecting the cancer. 
In this project, Dr Powis will be studying the peptides found on these packages, released from breast cancer cells grown in the lab. He will start by investigating what specific peptides are found on these packages, and how they compare to the peptides found on the breast cancer cells themselves. 

He will then be comparing them to blood samples donated by breast cancer patients, to see if there are similarities, and whether these peptides being released could be detected in the blood. 
The peptides present on these released packages can change during treatment, so Dr Powis and his team will be investigating how they change as cell lines are treated with a breast cancer chemotherapy drug, and a targeted therapy used in treating myeloma.

What difference will this project make?

By understanding these peptides fully, Dr Powis is hoping we can start to understand why certain immune-related treatments might not be working for patients, as well as giving us information on how best to use drugs that activate the immune system. If the signals released by these packages can be detected in the blood, it could allow doctors in the future to predict at an early stage whether a treatment will be successful, allowing patients to get the treatments that will work best for them as quickly as possible. In the long term, this knowledge could also lead to new ways to make the immunotherapy treatment much more successful.

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