Breakthrough at UGent in destroying cancer cells


Researchers in Flanders have laid the groundwork for a new immunotherapy that can slow tumour growth and guard against secondary cancers

Putting our immune systems to work

Researchers with Ghent University (UGent) and life sciences research institute VIB have marked an important breakthrough in the development of immunotherapies against cancer. They succeeded in developing a treatment for mice that destroyed cancer cells and spurred their immune systems into attacking remaining cancer cells.

According to figures from the Belgian Cancer Registry, one in three men and one in four women in Belgium are diagnosed with cancer before they turn 75. Prostate cancer and breast cancer are the most commons forms of cancer in men and women respectively.

One of the drawbacks of chemotherapy and radiation is that both treatments shrink tumours as well as healthy cells. The human immune system, in contrast, is very good at identifying and eliminating cancerous cells. Immunotherapies, a promising new field in cancer research, help the immune system get better at recognising cancerous cells.

Immune system ‘learns’ from dead cells

The immunotherapy developed at VIB and UGent triggers a certain type of cell death called necroptosis, a process that was known to activate the immune system from previous VIB studies. “The dead cells function as an example for the immune system, which now know which cells to target and attack,” explains Lien Van Hoecke of the VIB-UGent Centre for Medical Biotechnology.

The researchers subsequently developed an immune therapy that causes cancer cells to develop MLKL, a protein that plays a crucial role in necroptosis. “Our treatment not only slowed down primary tumour growth in mice, it also offered protection against untreated tumours and secondary tumour growth,” says professor Xavier Saelens, who led the research team. “The results of our study open up a great deal of perspectives to apply this therapy in humans.”

The team has published its findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Photo: 3D illustration of a cancer cell dividing
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