Cancer immunotherapy may work in unexpected way

May 18, 2017
Researchers have found that a cancer therapy may prompt a type of immune cell called a macrophage (illustrated above) to attack cancer. Credit: Sciencepics/Shutterstock

Antibodies to the proteins PD-1 and PD-L1 have been shown to fight cancer by unleashing the body's T cells, a type of immune cell. Now, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that the therapy also fights cancer in a completely different way, by prompting immune cells called macrophages to engulf and devour cancer cells.

The finding may have important implications for improving and expanding the use of this cancer treatment, the researchers said.

A study describing the work, which was done in mice, was published online May 17 in Nature. The senior author is Irving Weissman, MD, professor of pathology and of developmental biology. The lead author is graduate student Sydney Gordon.

PD-1 is a cell receptor that plays an important role in protecting the body from an overactive immune system. T cells, which are that learn to detect and destroy damaged or , can at times mistakenly attack , producing autoimmune disorders like lupus or multiple sclerosis. PD-1 is what's called an "immune checkpoint," a protein receptor that tamps down highly active T cells so that they are less likely to attack healthy tissue.

How cancer hijacks PD-1

About 10 years ago, researchers discovered that cancer cells learn to use this immune safeguard for their own purposes. Tumor cells crank up the production of PD-L1 proteins, which are detected by the PD-1 receptor, inhibiting T cells from attacking the tumors. In effect, the proteins are a "don't kill me" signal to the immune system, the Stanford researchers said. Cancer patients are now being treated with antibodies that block the PD-1 receptor or latch onto its binding partner, PD-L1, to turn off this "don't kill me" signal and enable the T cells' attack.

"Using antibodies to PD-1 or PD-L1 is one of the major advances in cancer immunotherapy," said Weissman, who is also the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine at Stanford. "While most investigators accept the idea that anti-PD-1 and PD-L1 antibodies work by taking the brakes off of the T-cell attack on cancer cells, we have shown that there is a second mechanism that is also involved."

What Weissman and his colleagues discovered is that PD-1 activation also inhibits the anti-cancer activity of other immune cells called macrophages. "Macrophages that infiltrate tumors are induced to create the PD-1 receptor on their surface, and when PD-1 or PD-L1 is blocked with antibodies, it prompts those to attack the cancer," Gordon said.

Similar to anti-CD47 antibody

This mechanism is similar to that of another antibody studied in the Weissman lab: the antibody that blocks the protein CD47. Weissman and his colleagues showed that using anti-CD47 antibodies prompted macrophages to destroy cancer cells. The approach is now the subject of a small clinical trial in human patients.

As it stands, it's unclear to what degree macrophages are responsible for the therapeutic success of the anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1 antibodies.

The practical implications of the discovery could be important, the researchers said. "This could lead to novel therapies that are aimed at promoting either the T-cell component of the attack on cancer or promoting the macrophage component," Gordon said.

Another implication is that antibodies to PD-1 or PD-L1 may be more potent and broadly effective than previously thought. "In order for T cells to attack cancer when you take the brakes off with , you need to start with a population of T cells that have learned to recognize specific in the first place," Weissman said. "Macrophage are part of the innate immune system, which means they should be able to recognize every kind of in every patient."

Explore further: Potential new cancer treatment activates cancer-engulfing cells

More information: Sydney R. Gordon et al. PD-1 expression by tumour-associated macrophages inhibits phagocytosis and tumour immunity, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature22396

Related Stories

Potential new cancer treatment activates cancer-engulfing cells

February 6, 2017
Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that can engulf and destroy cancer cells. A research group led by Professor MATOZAKI Takashi, Associate Professor MURATA Yoji, and YANAGITA Tadahiko (Kobe University Department of ...

Antibody fights pediatric brain tumors in preclinical testing, study finds

March 15, 2017
Five types of pediatric brain cancer were safely and effectively treated in mice by an antibody that causes immune cells to engulf and eat tumors without hurting healthy brain cells, according to a new study by researchers ...

Anti-CD47 antibody may offer new route to successful cancer vaccination

May 21, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Scientists at the School of Medicine have shown that their previously identified therapeutic approach to fight cancer via immune cells called macrophages also prompts the disease-fighting killer T cells ...

Molecular imaging reveals mechanism for resistance to immune checkpoint blockade

May 10, 2017
Among today's most promising weapons against cancer is the use of therapies that direct the immune system against a tumor. One approach - immune checkpoint blockade - is designed to circumvent the "off switches" that prevent ...

Study identifies a potential therapeutic target for lung cancer

June 13, 2016
Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) is one of the deadliest types of cancer, and it has been several decades since new treatment options have been approved for this disease. Although recent advances in cancer treatments have focused ...

'Eat me' signal whets appetites for tumor-devouring dendritic cells

August 31, 2015
By changing the mouse model they use to study how the immune system responds to cancer, a team of researchers hopes to shift the focus for one emerging form of cancer immunotherapy back to the standard approach—relying ...

Recommended for you

New bowel cancer drug target discovered

October 17, 2017
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute have discovered a new drug target for bowel cancer that is specific to tumour cells and therefore less toxic than conventional therapies.

Using artificial intelligence to improve early breast cancer detection

October 17, 2017
Every year 40,000 women die from breast cancer in the U.S. alone. When cancers are found early, they can often be cured. Mammograms are the best test available, but they're still imperfect and often result in false positive ...

Many pelvic tumors in women may have common origin—fallopian tubes

October 17, 2017
Most—and possibly all—ovarian cancers start, not in ovaries, but instead in the fallopian tubes attached to them.

Researchers find novel mechanism of resistance to anti-cancer drugs

October 17, 2017
The targeted anti-cancer therapies cetuximab and panitumumab are mainstays of treatment for advanced colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. However, many patients have tumors ...

New assay may boost targeted treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma

October 17, 2017
Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) is an aggressive cancer and the most frequently diagnosed non-Hodgkin lymphoma worldwide (nearly 40% of cases). Recent advancements indicate that both the prognosis and choice of treatment ...

Biology of childhood brain tumor subtypes offers clues to precision treatments

October 17, 2017
Researchers investigating pediatric low-grade gliomas (PLGG), the most common type of brain tumor in children, have discovered key biological differences in how mutated genes combine with other genes to drive this childhood ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.