Project Summary

The immune system prevents illness by recognising and attacking things that cause disease

Cancer is difficult to treat because cancer cells are very similar to healthy cells

Immunotherapy retrains the immune system to fight cancer but is currently ineffective at treating prostate cancer

IL-15 helps the immune system to attack cancer cells but can also harm healthy cells

This project attaches chemical tails to IL-15 which anchor it to the cancer site

This helps the immune system target prostate cancer without harming healthy cells

This method has already reduced tumour growth by 60% in the lab

This project could produce a single-injection treatment with minimal side effects

About the Researchers

MRC Centre for Transplantation, Guy's Hospital London

Dr Christine Galustian

Team Leader

Christine is the group leader of the Prostate Cancer Immunotherapy group at King’s College London. She is currently developing novel immunotherapeutic agents for treating prostate cancer.

Dr Efthymia Papaevangelou

Postdoctoral Research Scientist

Efthymia is a Research Fellow at King’s College London. She is currently researching the immunological and biological changes caused by novel immunotherapies on prostate cancer models.

Dr Ana Maria Da Silva

Protein Chemist

After finishing her degree in Biochemistry at the University of Lisbon, Ana moved to the New University of Lisbon for a PhD in Microbial Biochemistry which was completed beginning 2015. In 2016 she started working as a Post-Doctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London in a project that involved the biophysical characterization of a membrane protein.

Prostate Cancer Research funded researcher Dr Christine Galustian from King's College London talks about her work developing immunotherapies to treat prostate cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

The immune system protects us by recognising and attacking things which might make us ill, such as viruses, bacteria, or unhealthy cells.

One of the reasons cancer is so hard to treat is that cancer cells are very similar to our normal, healthy cells. This makes it difficult for our immune systems to recognise them as an enemy, and difficult to design drugs which can tell the difference between cancer and healthy cells.

Immunotherapy is one of the most exciting scientific advances in recent years. The idea is to retrain the immune system to identify and attack cancerous cells.

The Research Project

Although immunotherapy treatment is available, it hasn’t been very effective so far.

The only immunotherapy treatment for prostate cancer we have at the minute involves taking the patient’s blood, reprogramming his white blood cells to attack cancer cells and transplanting these cells back into his bloodstream. This treatment does not reduce symptoms or shrink tumours. It’s also a long and expensive procedure, not provided by the NHS.

PCR scientists, led by Dr Christine Galustian at King’s College London, are working with a naturally-occurring protein called IL-15. IL-15 causes the immune system to identify and attack cancerous cells. However, getting this protein to the site of the cancer is difficult. When it is injected into the bloodstream it doesn’t effectively fight cancer, and has toxic side effects.

Dr Galustian has devised an innovative new way to harness IL-15’s immunotherapeutic properties. She uses ‘chemical tails’ – an extra molecule made of peptides and fatty acids – which can be attached to the protein. This tail anchors the IL-15 at the cancer site, meaning it can help the immune system destroy the prostate cancer without harming the rest of the body.

Current treatments for advanced prostate cancer include hormone therapy and chemotherapy. These involve going to a hospital many times for repeat treatments, and unpleasant side effects.

Dr Galustian’s treatment should have minimal side effects, and will require just a single injection. Also, her chemically-tailed IL-15 is easy to manufacture compared to other kinds of cancer treating drugs. Whilst vastly improving men’s lives and chances of survival, these immunotherapeutic drugs could also save the NHS considerable time and money.

Dr Christine Galustian

The future

Dr Galustian’s research has already seen startling results – it has reduced tumour growth in model organisms by 60% using this method. She anticipates the new treatment will be even more effective in humans. This is because the IL-15 that she has used in the models will work even better in humans as it is a human protein. With your continued support, clinical trials are a real possibility.

Thanks to additional PCR funding, a new chemistry technician will shortly be joining the project. The new team member will experiment with different agents which, when used together with IL-15 in certain patients, will maximise its clinical potential.

If successful, the outcome will be a new immunotherapeutic treatment for men with advanced prostate cancer, but the therapy could have wider implications for fighting all sorts of advanced cancers, and for moving patients away from invasive and difficult treatments like chemotherapy.

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