Trinity researchers identify cancer killing capability of lesser-known immune cells

The discovery may offer a new therapeutic strategy in the fight against cancer

A Trinity research team from the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute (TTMI) have identified the cancer killing abilities of a specific type of immune cell, which may offer a new therapeutic strategy in the fight against cancer. 

Trinity researchers based in St. James’ Hospital have been studying a lesser-known type of immune cell to determine its use in fighting oesophageal cancer. Oesophageal cancer is an aggressive type of cancer that affects the food pipe and is one of the fastest growing types of cancer in the western world. 

Through their experiments, the researchers discovered that a specific type of white blood cell, known as a MAIT cell (mucosal-associated invariant cell), can kill oesophageal cancer cells in a test tube. 

However, when the immune cells were tested on liquid from fresh tumour biopsies, its effectiveness in killing the cancer cells was reduced, which shows that oesophageal tumours have mechanism to stop the MAIT cells from killing them once they enter the tumour. 

Researchers are now looking for ways to reverse the inhibition of these MAIT cells in order to use them as tumour-killing machines. 

Research Assistant Professor at TTMI and Principal Investigator, Dr Margaret Dunne said: “Oesophageal cancer rates are rising in Ireland, and improved treatment strategies are urgently needed. By revealing how lesser studied immune cells work in cancer, we can better understand the shortcomings of current immunotherapies and investigate new ways to boost the anti-cancer immune response.”

Dr Dunne added: “Immunotherapies have revolutionised cancer treatment but still only work for a minority of people. A more in-depth understanding of underlying biology will be critical to unravel why this is and to allow more patients to benefit.”

The researchers also found that the level of these white blood cells in the blood of cancer patients is very low compared to those without cancer, and that chemoradiotherapy treatments do not damage or reduce the level of MAIT cells in the body. 

Doctors find it difficult to determine the course of oesophageal cancer in patients and less than 15% of those diagnosed will survive for longer than five years. Common immunotherapy techniques used to combat cancer do not offer much benefit to people with oesophageal cancer.

Cian Lynch

Cian Lynch is the current Science Editor of Trinity News.