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Researchers fight lethal brain cancer with immune system

By Sergio Sharif, November 14 2020—

Researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) have found that the immune system can be used to stop the growth of a highly fatal brain cancer called glioblastoma.

The immune system has been on the minds of many during this pandemic. Whether it be the cytokine storms, herd immunity or vaccines, the body’s defence system is of much interest. Although considerable attention has been given to the immune system’s role in COVID-19, its role in cancer progression is the focus of many researchers.

A Canada-wide team with researchers at the University of Calgary taking the lead have published promising results on this very topic. Astrid De Boeck and Bo-Young Ahn were co-first authors on the paper which was published in the journal Nature Communications. Dr. Stephen Robbin, a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine, and Dr. Donna Senger, a research associate professor at the CSM, were co-principal investigators.

At the heart of their research lies the goal to fight one of the deadliest forms of cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM for short. GBM is a highly malignant and difficult to treat brain cancer, with diagnosis essentially being a death sentence. Median survival is a mere 14.6 months. These tragic facts reinforce the need for research in improving GBM outcomes.

Robbins, Senger and their team investigated the role of the immune messenger Interleukin-33 (IL-33) in GBM. When IL-33 is expressed in the cancer, immune cells are summoned into the tumor’s surroundings.

Paradoxically, the immune cells, which are supposed to help protect the body, fuelled tumour growth. The team showed that IL-33 presence in the cancer cell’s nucleus was necessary for turning the behaviour of immune cells from an anti-tumour state to a pro-tumour one. In the pro-tumour state, immune cells promote cancer growth. In line with these findings, their research also demonstrated that expression of IL-33 was associated with decreased survival of GBM patients.

They further investigated how outcomes altered upon blocking IL-33’s interaction with tumor receptors and genes in the nucleus. The team found that upon inhibition of IL-33’s action on the cancer cell’s nucleus in mice, cancer growth halted. As a result of this intervention, survival increased by over a year, which is a major advancement in a disease as aggressive as GBM.

The standard approach to treating GBM includes surgery, radiotherapy (radiation) and chemotherapy. This latest advance might provide a new treatment in the armamentarium against brain cancer. It would be a divergence from direct targeting of the cancer cells and instead prevent GBM growth by working with the body. This new direction could be the key to making glioblastoma a curable disease and no longer a death sentence for the many patients afflicted with it.

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