Project details

Researcher: Professor Andrew Sewell

Location: Cardiff University

Project title: Understanding how a special group of T cells can distinguish between cancer cells and healthy cells

Key area: Treatment

The challenge

Using the immune system to target tumours has been hailed as one of the next great breakthroughs in treating cancers, with the potential to use the patient’s own immune cells to specifically recognise and attack cancer cells. However, there is still much to learn if we are to use these immunotherapies to safely and effectively treat breast cancer whilst avoiding damage to healthy tissues.

The science behind the project

Our immune systems are made up of many different types of cells, all of which play a role in protecting our bodies from harm. Researchers are particularly interested in using a group of immune cells called ‘T cells’ to treat cancer, due to their ability to detect abnormal and potentially damaging molecules, including those found on tumour cells. 

T cell therapies have recently shown success in treating patients with advanced skin cancer. Professor Andrew Sewell and his team have identified the specific T cells which were responsible for targeting skin cancer, and now want to find out if these cells could also be used to successfully treat breast cancer.

Excitingly, they found that these T cells are able to selectively target breast cancer cells without harming healthy tissue, or causing a damaging immune-system wide response – both of which are major barriers to the development of effective immunotherapies. The most remarkable feature of the newly discovered T cells that this project will focus on however, is their potential to be used for all patients.

One of the major drawbacks of existing T cell therapies is that they rely on molecules called HLA molecules to recognise cancer cells. HLA molecules are different in every single person and must be matched between patients and donors for successful organ transplants; this means that T cell therapies can only be produced for individual patients. The specific T cells identified by Professor Sewell are not dependent on these HLA molecules, and so could be produced to treat breast cancer patients at a much greater scale. 

In order to make further progress with their findings, the team now want to identify which molecules on the surface of cancer cells are being targeted by these T cells, and to understand exactly how these T cell can distinguish the cancer cells from healthy tissue. 

What difference will this project make?

Professor Sewell hopes that the identification of the key molecules targeted by this specific group of T cells will drive the field of immunotherapies forward, leading to safe and effective treatments for breast cancer which can be produced on a wide scale. The team also predict that this study could result in new diagnostic tests, to detect the early stages of cancer in those at risk of the disease.