A protein called Focal Adhesion Kinase (FAK), which is often overproduced in tumours, enables cancer cells to elude attacks by the immune system.
FAK’s usual function is to send signals to healthy cells to grow and move around the body.
Experts from Edinburgh University, led by Dr Alan Serrels, have discovered that the protein plays a different role in cancer cells, changing the immune system so that it protects cancer cells rather than destroying them.
The study, published yesterday in the scientific journal Cell, shows that using an experimental drug to inhibit this protein prevented the change and allowed the cancer cells to be treated as a threat.
This project is the first time that FAK inhibitors have been shown to influence the immune system, particularly whether or not it recognises and fights cancer.
Dr Serrels, a research fellow at the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre at Edinburgh University, said: “FAK is hijacked by cancer cells to protect them from the immune system.
“This exciting research reveals that by blocking FAK, we’ve now found a promising new way to help the immune system recognise the cancer and fight it.”
This provides an unexpected and exciting potential new use for existing FAK-inhibitor drugs. which are already in trials.
The research was carried out in mice with a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. It is likely to also apply to other cancers.
The results showed that tumours completely disappeared when the mice were given FAK inhibitors.
Dr Serrels said: “The drug in this study is already in early-stage clinical trials and could potentially be an excellent complement to existing immunotherapy treatments.
“Because it works within tumour cells rather than influencing the immune cells directly, it could offer a way to reduce the side-effects of treatments that harness the power of the immune system against cancer.”
Campaigners hailed the findings, which add to the growing body of research into promising immunotherapy treatments for cancer. Nell Barrie, senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This promising research suggests these drugs may be able to help the immune system to destroy cancer cells.
“Research to maximise the power of the immune system is a really exciting area. This particular approach hasn’t yet been tested in people, but there are plans to now find out how it could benefit patients.”