The immune system protects us from infections. It ensures that bugs such as coughs, colds and the flu are normally eliminated without making us seriously ill. It is now known that the immune system can also protect us against cancer.
Cells of the immune system patrol our tissues and eliminate “rogue cells” that might lead to cancer. However, cancer cells have their own tricks and adapt themselves to evade immunity. Cancers hide from immune cells, or switch them off and therefore continue to grow. By the time a cancer is detected by a doctor, it has already escaped the attention of the immune system. The goal of our research is to find new ways to switch immune cells on so that are able to - detect and destroy cancer cells.
Viruses are good at switching the immune system on and some viruses can infect and kill cancer cells. Using viruses that don’t cause harm to patients can help to attack the cancer in two ways:
- The virus can kill the cancer cells directly
- The virus switches on the immune system to attack the cancer cells
We are interested in how these viruses, known as oncolytic (“cancer-bursting”) viruses switch on a type of immune cell in the blood, called a natural killer cell.
Researchers have shown in lab studies, and in clinical trials, that the oncolytic viruses switch the killer cells on. We now want to try these viruses to see if they can help to kill Ewing sarcoma cancers.
We have a number of these viruses that have been made at clinical grade, this means they are manufactured specifically for trying in cancer patients. We will test these viruses in the lab to see if they kill the Ewing sarcoma cells directly and if they switch on the killer cells to destroy the cancer.
In previous research, we have identified molecules that the Ewing sarcoma cells use, to switch the killer cells off; there are also therapeutic drugs available that block these molecules. We will investigate whether combinations of viruses, this new drug and killer cells together are an effective route to kill Ewing sarcoma.
This is a laboratory-based project. However, the viruses and drugs we will use are in clinical trials for other cancers and are generating promising results. By focusing our attention on these existing agents, we can avoid the long development time from lab to clinic.
Our goal is to provide information that will encourage the use of these clinical-grade viruses and drugs in clinical trials in the not so distant future. To help us achieve scientific and, ultimately, clinical progress in this area, we have assembled a team of scientists and clinicians with expertise spanning the laboratory and clinical aspects of the work.
This project is also being supported by the Ewing Sarcoma Research Trust.