NEW research has identified potential treatment that could be a ‘”breakthrough” in the fight against cancer.

A study, led by University of Southampton Professor of Cell Signalling, Nullin Divecha, has found a new treatment that could improve the human immune system’s ability to search out and “destroy” cancer cells.

In the study scientists from the University of Southampton and the National Institute of Molecular Genetics in Milan identified a way to restrict the activity of a group of cells which regulate the immune system, which in turn can unleash other immune cells to attack tumours.

Detection and removal of cancer cells by the immune system is carried out in part by a group of cells called Teffector cells and how well they work in detecting and removing cancer cells is in part dictated by T-regulatory cells, or Tregs for short.

Tregs physically interact with the Teff cells and produce molecules which reduce the ability of the Teff cells to work properly.

Professor Divecha said: “A patient’s immune system is more than able to detect and remove cancer cells and immunotherapy has recently emerged as a novel therapy for many different types of cancers.

“However, cancer cells can generate a microenvironment within the tumour that stops the immune system from working thereby limiting the general use and success of immunotherapy.”

In this study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, scientists showed that inhibition of a family of enzymes in cells called PIP4K could be the answer to restricting Tregs without affecting Teffs.

The research team isolated Tregs from healthy donors and used genetic technology to suppress the production of the PIP4K proteins.

They observed that loss of PIP4Ks from Treg cells stopped them growing and responding to immune signals which would therefore stop them from blocking the growth and function of Teff cells.

The loss of the same enzymes in Teff cells did not limit their activity and now the University is calling the study a “breakthrough to help immune systems in the fight against cancer”.

Dr. Alessandro Poli said: “Towards this end we show that treatment with a drug like inhibitor of PIP4K could enable the immune system to function more strongly and be better equipped to destroy tumour cells.”