Queen’s University Belfast: Scientists awaken viral response to target bowel cancer

New research has identified the role of the immune response within bowel cancer tissue, which could lead to new lifesaving treatments for bowel cancer patients.

The study at Queen’s University Belfast analysed over 1,000 tumour samples from patients diagnosed with bowel cancer. Through analysing the visual appearance of the tumour as well as its genetic make-up, the researchers were then able to test how the immune cells within the tumour responded to different treatments in the laboratory.

The study showed that stimulating a viral-like response within a tumour can reawaken the patient’s own immune system to detect and kill cancer cells. This immune response, similar to a person’s general response to an infection, plays an important role in controlling tumour spread in some bowel cancer patients. Although in early stage research, it is hoped that this personalised approach to treatment for bowel cancer patients could lead to increased survival rates. The research team will now focus on developing clinical trials, with the aim to treat patients within the next five years.

Dr Philip Dunne, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology at the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s and senior author of the study, commented: “In order to identify the most appropriate treatment options for cancer patients, our work combines features from the tumour’s visual appearance down the microscope with information about changes in the genetic make-up of the person’s tumour.

“We have found that stimulating a subset of immune cells to react in the same way that they would to a virus can reactivate multiple steps within the immune system. In cancer patients with early stage tumours that remain localised to the bowel, this enables the immune system to attack cancer cells and reduces the risk of the disease spreading.”

Queen’s PhD student and first author on the study, Shania Corry, explains: “Our findings show that a viral-like response within a tumour can reawaken the patient’s own immune system to detect and kill cancer cells, an approach that has shown remarkable effectiveness in our tumour models. We used a synthetic analog of double-stranded RNA, which in many ways is similar to a non-specific vaccine. It looks like a virus to the immune cells though it doesn’t contain any viral replication material. This is a really exciting development, and we hope that this approach will now lead to new treatment options for patients with bowel cancer.”

Bowel cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK, with around 42,900 new bowel cancer cases and around 16,600 bowel cancer deaths in the UK every year. The study, published in Gut, to coincide with Bowel Cancer Awareness month, was led by Queen’s University Belfast in collaboration with scientists and clinicians across the UK and Europe as part of two international consortia funded by Cancer Research UK.

Dr Dunne added: “Our study highlights how research can provide clinicians with vital intelligence to make the right treatment decisions for patients in the clinic. We have already started the process of developing a clinical trial to test this new “personalised cancer medicine” approach, which has the potential to improve survival and enhance quality of life for bowel cancer patients in the next five years as we develop our work in clinical trials.”

This study used tumour samples from over 1,000 patients diagnosed with bowel cancer, which in turn required analysis and interpretation of the resulting data across an international network of multidisciplinary researchers.

Professor Owen Sansom, Director of the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow and co-author on the study, said: “This exciting new research demonstrates how cross-disciplinary collaborations, between scientists and clinicians, are essential to ensure we comprehensively characterise a patient’s tumour, allowing us to test novel treatments specifically designed to target the biology of the disease.”

Professor Mark Lawler, Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics and Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s, who co-authored the study said: “This important study demonstrates how scientific research at Queen’s can develop innovative new ways to treat cancer. The work pioneered by Dr Dunne’s research team validates our investment in “rising stars” who have the confidence to lead team science initiatives with prestigious international partners, addressing global challenges which will improve the lives of cancer patients.”

Responding to the study, Dr Sam Godfrey, Research Information Lead at Cancer Research UK, said: “An important goal for beating cancer is to work out how to train our immune systems to recognize the disease and attack it.

“So It is really interesting that we could manipulate one of the defences our bodies use to deal with viruses so that it can tackle cancer.

“Further studies are needed to assess the potential of this approach in patients, but it is an exciting development that could unlock new targeted treatments for bowel cancer.”

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