The first evidence was recently presented demonstrating how the immune system can be controlled by directly reprogramming connective tissue cells into immune cells. The discovery provides the opportunity to develop an entirely new strategy for targeted immunotherapy against cancer.
One characteristic of cancer is its ability to avoid detection by the body’s immune system. Tumour cells accumulate a number of mutations during their growth but lose their ability to present antigens, i.e. molecules that the immune system recognises. These processes make it difficult for the immune system to identify the tumour cells as a threat and these can continue to grow uncontrolled and spread in the body.
“We have previously shown that connective tissue cells can be reprogrammed into dendritic cells using only three proteins. Dendritic cells, a type of immune cell, are effective at presenting different antigens, teaching the immune system how to eliminate tumour cells”, says Filipe Pereira, research team leader and Molecular MedicineFellow at the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine (WCMM), Lund University.
The research project’s aim is now to test a new immunotherapy in which the previously identified proteins will be used to reprogram tumour cells into cells that present tumour-specific antigens recognized by the immune system.
“We will start by reprogramming mouse and human tumour cells into antigen-presenting cells in the petri dish. We will then test the reprogrammed tumour cells’ ability to activate the immune system and trigger tumour-specific immune responses in mouse models”, says Filipe Pereira.
The research project, which has just received a grant of DKK 500 000 from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, represents an exciting opportunity for bringing together cell reprogramming and cancer immunotherapy. In parallel, the researchers have started up the company Asgard Therapeutics AB, aiming to implement this paradigm shift technology to advance cancer immunotherapy and improve cancer patients’ lives.