Montreal scientists investigate how to help the immune system fight cancer

The Montreal Clinical Research Institute has identified two molecules that can be activated to make macrophages more efficient at devouring cancer cells.

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Montreal researchers have identified a mechanism that could make the immune system more efficient at attacking and destroying cancerous tumors.

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Dr. André Veillette, of the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, and colleagues identified two molecules on the surface of macrophages, immune cells that devour invaders, to heighten their destructive instinct and create “cancer cell super-eaters.”

Several studies examining the role of the immune system in the battle against cancer have focused on T cells, whose role is to defend the body against viruses, bacteria, and parasites, as well as cancer cells.

“Increasingly, people asked the question: ‘Can we recruit or activate other types of cells in the immune system to help fight cancer as well?’ asked Veillette, who has been studying the mechanisms that regulate the immune system for 30 years.

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This led groups, including his own, to focus on the potential of macrophages, he said.

In a study published in Nature in 2017, his colleagues focused on the SLAMF7 molecule, which also stimulates the destructive capacity of macrophages.

While other research is interested in the “brakes” that keep macrophages from becoming more active, “for us, it’s not the brakes we’re interested in, it’s the accelerators,” Veillette said.

In animal tests and tests on human cell cultures in a laboratory, institute scientists identified two molecules on the surface of macrophages, CD11a and CD11c, that can be activated to make them more efficient.

Combining therapies that stop the brakes and those that hit the gas “can really increase the ability of macrophages to gobble up and destroy cancer cells,” Veillette said.

The next step in the team’s research will be to see how the CD11a and CD11c molecules can be used as biomarkers to identify patients who would be receptive to therapy that maximizes the potential of their immune system.

The conclusions of this study were published by the medical journal Cell Reports.

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