Leading Birmingham scientists have been awarded a grant worth almost £25,000 by Breast Cancer Now to investigate why the immune system does not attack and kill cancer cells that have spread around the body.

Friday 19 May 2017      Latest research Our research
Dr Anne Fletcher

Dr Anne Fletcher will lead the one-year pilot study

It is hoped that the research will ultimately lead to the development of novel immunotherapies for breast cancer patients.

The immune system is responsible for fighting infection and protecting the body against disease. It is able to distinguish between the body’s own cells and foreign cells, and to destroy any that could be potentially harmful – helping to prevent and eliminate many diseases developing around the body.

However, in many cases where breast cancer has spread around the body – known as secondary breast cancer – the immune system fails to recognise and attack these migrating breast cancer cells, allowing them to go undetected. Secondary breast cancer is incurable, and the majority of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancers spread in this way.

Over 1,900 women in the West Midlands are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and over 450 women in the region die from the disease each year1.

Dr Anne Fletcher and Dr Konstantin Knoblich, based at the University of Birmingham, are to lead a one-year pilot study to investigate why the immune system is prevented from attacking cancer cells that have spread.

The lymph nodes – one of the first places that breast cancer commonly spreads to – are one of a few places in the body where the immune system is always partially suppressed. This protective immune suppression – that prevents delicate tissues from being damaged – also occurs in the eyes and testes.

Immune suppression is controlled by vital cells known as fibroblastic reticular cells (FRCs), and team believes that an interaction between FRCs and breast cancers that reach the lymph nodes may be responsible for switching off the immune response to cancer.

In this exploratory study, the team of scientists will grow immune cells – known as T-cells – together with breast cancer cells and investigate how the T-cells’ ability to ‘recognise’ cancer cells is affected by the presence of FRCs. They will use a cutting-edge live-imaging technique – which uses time-lapse microscopy – to visualise any molecular changes that occur within the T-cells in the presence of FRCs, as they happen.

If found to play a key role in the suppression of the immune response to cancer, FRCs could be a novel target for drug development to try to prevent or reverse this process. Harnessing the immune system to trigger a response to cancer cells could improve outcomes for many of the estimated 35,000 people in the UK who are living with incurable secondary breast cancer.

Many companies are already developing T-cell immunotherapies that target tumours directly for use in clinical trials and, if validated in this study, Dr Fletcher and Dr Knoblich’s preliminary research suggests that the ability of FRCs to prevent T-cells from recognising cancer cells should be taken into account as part of these studies.

Dr Richard Berks, Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“This study could bring us a step closer to understanding why the immune system doesn’t attack cancer cells, which is a hot topic in cancer research.

“If FRCs are found to play a role in supressing the immune system, it could open up a new avenue of research into how we might halt or reverse this.

“If we can boost the immune system by enabling it to recognise and destroy cancer cells, we may be able to improve the chances of survival for patients with all types of cancer that has spread via the lymph nodes.”

1 Source of information: Incidence, mortality, and survival statistics were obtained from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Incidence statistics were based upon women diagnosed between 2011 and 2013. Mortality statistics were based upon women dying from breast cancer between 2012 and 2014.