On Longwood University Week: We need a cancer treatment that leaves behind adverse side effects.
Amorette Barber, associate professor of biology, details one such method that is on the way.
I am an Associate Professor of Biology in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
My research focuses on tumor immunology. Current cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation result in adverse side effects. Therefore, the development of novel therapies that specifically target tumor cells and minimize damage to healthy cells is desirable. One option is to use cells of the immune system, specifically T cells, which kill cells that appear dangerous or foreign. To maximize tumor cell-targeting by T cells, genetic engineering is used to express receptors that enhance tumor cell recognition. These receptors, named chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), endow the T cell with two properties: 1) they provide a way to recognize the tumor cells and 2) they activate many cellular functions to eradicate the tumor.
My research focuses on studying three specific aspects of T cell immunotherapy: 1) what anti-tumor effector functions are ideal to reduce tumor burden, 2) what proteins (receptors) induce these functions in T cells, and 3) how to incorporate these anti-tumor functions into novel chimeric antigen receptors for therapy. My research lab investigates many tumor types including lymphoma, melanoma, breast, ovarian, liver, colon, kidney, prostate, bladder, and pancreatic cancers. In addition to the applications to human health, my research also investigates the basic biology of how immune cells are activated, and thus has implications in general immunology as well as tumor immunology.
Current cancer treatments result in adverse side effects. Therefore, the development of novel therapies that specifically target tumor cells and minimize damage to healthy cells is desirable. One option is to use T cells to attack and kill cancer cells, which identify and destroy anything that appears foreign and dangerous to your body, while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.
However, cancer cells have many mechanisms to avoid detection by the immune system. Consequently, labs around the world are manipulating T cells to better harness their cancer-killing abilities.Many T cells used for cancer therapy are genetically engineered to express receptors that enhance anti-cancer efficacy. These receptors, called chimeric antigen receptors, are used to redirect a patient’s T cells to recognize certain proteins that are only expressed on the surface of cancer cells. Promisingly, chimeric antigen-expressing T cells have shown initial success in clinical trials and have recently been approved by the FDA for treatment of cancer.
To increase the number of cancer types we can target, my lab developed a chimeric antigen receptor that targets the PD1 receptor. This is an ideal candidate because unlike many of the targets that are currently being tested, the activating molecules for PD1 are expressed on more than 80% of cancer types, but not on healthy tissues. Our data show that expression of the chimeric PD1 receptor in T cells reawakens their ability to kill multiple types of cancer cells.
We hope these findings can be used to treat a broad range of cancer types and also reduce the adverse side effects associated with traditional cancer therapies.