Project details

Researcher: Dr Crescens Tiu

Location: The Institute of Cancer Research, London

Project cost: £333,901

The challenge

Breast cancer cells can hide from the immune system. This means the immune system can’t detect and get rid of them. Cancer treatments can be used to help the immune system find the breast cancer cells. They are called immunotherapies. However, sometimes immunotherapies don’t work for everyone.

A major challenge in using immunotherapies to treat breast cancer is that there are not many immune cells inside breast tumours that can recognise and destroy the cancer cells. We need to find more ways to expose breast cancer cells to the immune system, to better treat the disease.

‘The immune system is arguably the ultimate weapon against breast cancer. However, treatments that lift the brake off the immune system have so far been disappointing in improving outcomes for many people with breast cancer. I want to develop combination therapies that overcome breast cancer’s ability to hide from the immune system, so that more people with the disease can benefit from immunotherapies,’’ Dr Crescens Tiu

The science behind the project

There is evidence that when a breast cancer cell dies in a particular way, it alerts the immune system. It can awaken immune cells that send out danger signals, these signals turn the attention of the immune system to the breast cancer.

There are drug molecules that block proteins called IAPs in breast cancer cells.  When these proteins are blocked they have the potential to push breast cancer cells to die and turn on danger signals to alert the immune system to the breast cancer cells.

Crescens is studying whether blocking the IAP proteins with a drug called ASTX660 affects how breast cancer cells die. She also wants to know if it alerts the immune system to the breast cancer cells. Studying how breast cancer cells can escape recognition by the immune system will also help Crescens combine cancer treatments to help expose cancer to the immune system. She is currently testing these approaches using mice and tissue samples donated by people with breast cancer.

Crescens will also analyse how results from the lab match data from people affected by breast cancer who are taking part in the ASTEROID study. The ASTEROID study looks at the effects of ASTX660 combined with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab.

What difference will this project make?

This research will help develop combination therapies that make breast cancer visible to the immune system and can make immunotherapies more effective. The knowledge gained from this project will help to develop new combination immunotherapy treatment for secondary breast cancer. It could lead to new treatments, helping people with breast cancer live longer and have a better quality of life.

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