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Metabolic discovery may lead to new ways to treat ovarian cancer

BC Cancer researchers have now discovered a key finding that will help them use gene-engineering technology to harness the body’s immune system to fight ovarian cancer, a disease that will be diagnosed in approximately 385 British Columbians this year.
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​Inside the micro-environment of a tumour, cancer cells and immune cells compete for nutrients to help them grow. 

In a recently published study, researchers at the Deeley Lab have discovered how to identify cancer cell byproducts, known as metabolites, which effectively disable the body’s T cells, the type of immune cells that can recognize and fight cancerous tumour cells. It is the first time researchers have mapped the metabolome in ovarian cancer. By mapping the metabolome, researchers now have a snapshot of the metabolites present within key cells in the tumour microenvironment.

“This is the first time we have a clear picture of the relationship between immune cells and tumour cells in ovarian cancer”, says Marisa Kilgour, lead author and PhD candidate at the University of Victoria. “This could be a game-changer in how we can help our immune system to fight the disease” says Kilgour, who is supervised by Dr. Julian J. Lum, a senior scientist at BC Cancer and associate professor at the University of Victoria.
“Immunotherapy involves manipulating the body’s immune system to treat disease,” says Dr. Lum “It has been very successful at treating some cancer types, but not ovarian cancer.” One reason is that tumour cells compete with T cells for nutrients, while also producing metabolites that suppress the body’s immune system. 

Marisa Kilgour (photo from University of Victoria photo services)

Kilgour, Lum and research partners across Canada and the United States have developed a novel method to profile the metabolism of cancer cells and T cells from the tumours of ovarian cancer patients. Specifically, the researchers discovered the metabolite known as 1-methylnicotinamide (1-MNA) effectively turns off the anti-cancer function of T cells, impacting the immune system. This provides metabolic targets to improve immune-based treatments for ovarian cancer.

“In this scenario, scientists can engineer T cells to do a couple of things. They can assist the T cells by encouraging them to consume more than the cancer cells, thereby making them the stronger of the two or scientists can engineer the T cells to put up shields to protect themselves against metabolites like 1-MNA, which is the immunotherapy approach,” says Dr. Lum.
This breakthrough opens the door to future discoveries that Dr. Lum hopes will inform the general public to change their own diet to prevent disease. Changes in diet impact overall metabolism and immune system function, which directs how the human body can respond to and fight serious illness like cancer, he adds.

Dr. Julian J. Lum (photo from University of Victoria photo services)

“How does our diet affect our immune system’s response to cancer? Are we eating the wrong things? We need to investigate this area at a molecular level to determine whether our eating habits need to change,” says Lum. 

A version of this story was previously published on the University of Victoria website

BC Cancer
Research; Women's Health
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