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Centenary Institute - Medical Research
Centenary Institute - Medical Research

Fighting throat cancer with T cells

Research led by the Centenary Institute has discovered that immune cells accumulating within the tumour environment, called tumour-resident T cells, are a critical determinant in survival rates of patients suffering from throat cancer.

Reported in the prestigious ‘Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer’, the research suggests that strategies aiming to boost these T-cells at tumour sites could be beneficial to patients.

“Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) is a form of throat cancer. It can be caused by environmental factors such as smoking or by human papillomavirus infection (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women,” said Ms Rehana Hewavisenti (pictured left), lead author of the study and researcher at the Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney.

“We knew that patients with HPV-related OPSCC had far better clinical outcomes compared to other OPSCC patients but we didn’t know why,” she said.

In examining over sixty patient samples, Ms Hewavisenti and her colleagues discovered that increased levels of tumour-resident T cells, whether in HPV or non-HPV OPSCC cases, was clearly associated with improved patient survival outcomes.

“It was the accumulation of these immune T-cells, in and around the tumour site that appeared to be key,” said Ms Hewavisenti.

The researchers also found in their study that HPV OPSCC patients generally had far higher levels of tumour-resident T cells compared to their non-HPV OPSCC patient counterparts.

“We think these HPV positive patients tended to have better clinical outcomes as HPV infection is likely to favour the accumulation of these beneficial T-cells within the tumour area,” she said.

Dr Mainthan Palendira (pictured right), Head of the Centenary Institute’s Human Viral and Cancer Immunology Laboratory and senior author on the research paper believes the research findings have major implications.

“Now that we understand how important this immune response is in relation to OPSCC, we can begin developing new treatment strategies focused on recruiting these favourable tumour-resident T cells directly to tumours,” he said.

Dr Palendira believes that looking at the amount of these T-cells in cancer could help clinicians to personalise the best treatment approach for individual patients.

“We also think that our research demonstrating viral (HPV) links with this tumour-resident T cell accumulation could help in future cancer vaccine development efforts too,” he said.

Read the full media release here.

Outstanding cancer researcher acknowledged

Dr Ulf Schmitz, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Computational BioMedicine Laboratory has been recognised as an outstanding investigator in the field of cancer research, being awarded an NHMRC Investigator Grant.

The grant, which will support Dr Schmitz and his exploration of post-transcriptional gene regulation in cancer over the next five years, will commence in 2021.

“Healthy cells normally undergo regulatory processes that turn DNA into proteins but when this process becomes distorted cancer cells are formed. My research is to understand the bio-mechanisms that control this gene regulation activity. By improving our understanding of gene regulation and its role in cancer, we can offer new opportunities for better diagnosis, and treatment,” said Dr Schmitz.

The NHMRC Investigator Grant scheme supports the research programs of outstanding investigators at all career stages with funding as well as research support packages. Further information on the grants can be found on the NHMRC website here.

Information on Dr Schmitz and his research can be found here.