The Scientists

Professor Prokar Dasgupta

Dr Christine Galustian

Dr Richard Smith

Objective

Cancer cells can be recognised as enemies by our immune cells. Our immunotherapy group is developing therapy to help the immune system expose the enemies and kill the cancer cells.

About the research

All cells produce signals that are carried to the surface of the cell. The signals are recognised by the immune system as safe and trusted. But cancer cells contain genetic changes that result in alterations to the structure of some of these signal proteins. Consequently, the immune system is able to recognise the cancer cells as foreign. If it were not for the immune system, cancer would be much more common, because thankfully many of the cancer cells are recognised and killed by the immune system before they become a problem.

But cancer cells are clever – they find ways of masking the signals that make them foreign and consequently evade the immune system. Dr Galustian and her team are developing ways of helping the immune system detect the masked foreigners and then boosting the immune response to kill the cancer cells.

Dr Galustian is helping the immune system with a cocktail of drugs that unmask the prostate cancer cells and stimulate the immune cells to attack the cancer cells. She has selected two antibodies already approved for use in cancer patients to unmask the cancer cells, combined with another chemical to shrink the cancer.

Immunotherapy is one of the most exciting areas of development in cancer therapy, and cancer research teams around the world are testing similar approaches. But the reason PCRC funded Dr Galustian was that she and her colleague Dr Smith have developed a unique method for delivering the immune molecules to the cancer cells. They attach a “tail” to each component of the cocktail so that it sticks specifically to the prostate cancer cells. Consequently, much higher concentrations of the immune molecules can be delivered to the prostate cancer cells.

The cocktail by itself has some effect, but cannot cure prostate cancer. But using the “tailed” immune molecules, Dr Galustian and her colleagues have destroyed prostate cancers in mice. Now they will refine the cocktail and move towards the treatment of men with advanced prostate cancer.