Australian scientists work on helping the immune system kill cancer cells

Australian scientists are a step closer to finding new and more effective treatments for lymphoma and lung cancer after opening up new treatment options that will better harness the immune system to recognize and attack cancer, Mirage News reported.

Within the research, the findings of which were published in Nature Cell Biology, scientists from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Australian National University (ANU) discovered a protein that “contributes to abnormal deactivation of specific genes in cancer cells.”

As Professor Mark Dawson, Associate Director for Research Translation and Consultant Haematologist at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, explained, “All cells carry a set of genes that lay dormant waiting for instructions to either be active or silent.”

Reactivating dormant cells

Disrupted normal regulation of genes is one of cancer’s hallmarks which “causes cancer cells to look and behave differently to normal cells.” These cells essentially become invisible and are able to evade detection by the immune system by deactivating specific immune genes.

“Previously we thought that if we inhibited a protein called Menin, which had been shown to activate genes, these dormant genes would become silenced. However, our research discovered that the opposite happens, and we actually activate these dormant genes,” Professor Dawson added.

By switching off the genes, cancer cells are keeping them in a dormant state which allows cancer to grow, spread, and become more aggressive.

“Some cancer cells keep genes that direct our immune system in this dormant state,” said Dr. Christina Sparbier, Ph.D. student in the Dawson lab.

Researchers now believe that they can reactivate these dormant genes, essentially making the cancer cells visible again and allowing the immune system to track them and destroy them “by targeting the Menin protein using drug therapies.”

” We found that by removing Menin, we increase the expression of the genes so that the immune system can more readily detect these cancer cells and kill them,” Dr. Sparbier added.

Expanding the potential clinical uses of drugs

According to Professor Dawson, these findings could lead to new and more effective treatments for patients with lymphoma and lung cancer and “help scientists learn more about how cells function.”

“Our research discovery has major implications for many different fields of research because we need to understand how cells make decisions and change the way they act in order to find new ways to treat cancer,” he noted.

The researchers in the study used gene-editing technology to delete the Menin protein from the cancer cells, said ANU Associate Professor Marian Burr, clinician scientist, Snow Fellow, and laboratory head at the John Curtin School of Medical Research who jointly supervised the project.

Burr stressed that “by deleting Menin, we could turn on the immune genes, which is essential to help the immune system to detect and kill the cancer cells,” emphasizing that “specific drugs that inhibit Menin have been developed and are currently being tested in clinical trials for specific forms of leukemia.”

“Our findings expand the potential clinical uses of these drugs. We have shown that Menin inhibitors can be used in combination with other existing treatments to enhance the killing of lymphoma and lung cancer cells in the laboratory,” he explained. “We believe that these drugs could also be effective in other types of cancer.”

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