Explaining cancer immunology

February 22, 2011

So, I hope that I’ve built some anticipation for my explanation of cancer immunology.  I’m really proud of my team at the Deeley Research Centre (DRC) in Victoria and that we’re one of only two dedicated sites in Canada that explore the link between your immune system and cancer.

When I speak about your immune system, I mean the white blood cells in your body.  White blood cells (especially the type called T cells) circulate throughout your body looking for signs of infection from viruses or bacteria.  When they see trouble, they destroy the foreign invaders.  Although cancer cells can often look very similar to healthy ones, research has shown that your white blood cells can, in fact, recognize cancer cells as foreign.  We know this because we often see under the microscope that tumours have been infiltrated by high numbers of white blood cells.

Not only does this mean that your immune system does respond to cancer, but it also suggests that in many people, white blood cells might be doing a good enough job in keeping the body cancer-free.  Research has also shown that patients with stronger immune responses have better survival rates.

The basic question we ask at the DRC is:  How can we enhance the immune response to fight cancer?  This underlies all the research that we do, and we are constantly looking at strategies to harness the immune system to increase the effectiveness of standard treatment.  One example would be a cancer vaccine that is designed to fight a patient’s particular type of tumour when it’s in its residual stages at the end of treatment.  Another example would be to extract some of a patient’s white blood cells, isolate the ones that are fighting the tumour, grow more of them in a lab, and then give them back to the patient to increase the immune response.

Although these strategies are not standard treatment, progress is being made.  The type of research that is being done at the Genome Sciences Centre means that more and more cancer mutations are being discovered.  These could serve as targets for a vaccine.  Last year, the Agency’s Centre for Lymphoid Cancer in collaboration with the GSC found a mutation that is present in at least a quarter of all non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients.  At the DRC, we are working hard to develop a vaccine that targets that specific mutation.

It is an exciting area of research that has allowed me to collaborate with my colleagues across the Agency and even across the world.  I believe that our research contributes to the uniqueness of the Agency and its ability to provide outstanding care and treatment to cancer patients in B.C.