February 1, 2018 / All Stories

Science Rocks! Rewiring cells to attack cancer

Rewiring cells could change the way our immune system finds and destroys cancer cells.

Science Rocks features AbbVie scientists who share interesting research in their field and why it matters. In this month's feature, Mikkel Algire, Ph.D., senior scientist, AbbVie, discusses how we might re-engineer cells to one day fight cancer.

Your immune system is one of the best cancer fighting tools available. It is very effective at protecting you against diseases, pathogens and cancer by utilizing specialized cells and cellular functions. Your immune system’s ability to see cancers relies on its ability to physically interact with cancer cells and the environment. These interactions usually happen through proteins called receptors that sit on the cell surface. A receptor can detect specific signals from outside the cell and transmit that information inside the cell in order for the cell to respond appropriately, such as destroying a cancerous tumor cell. This sounds simple but one of cancer’s nasty tricks is to evade detection by becoming invisible to your immune system.

To combat this method of cancer evasion, maturing areas of cellular engineering have been used to make genetically modified patient derived T-cells that are now able to again see the cancerous cells and attack them. While this holds promise, tumors find other ways to remain invisible and resist the immune system. What if we could give immune cells new receptors and functions that are not normally seen in nature? Would cancer cells be able to hide from these cells?

Researchers around the world have been attempting to answer that question. In this paper from Northwestern University, the authors demonstrate a general approach for rewiring a cell. They engineer a receptor and signal system in a cell to create a customized function that is not seen in nature. In this case, the new function allowed an immune cell to produce a protein that increases immune system activity in response to a signal that normally tells the cell to reduce immune activity. This is important because as part of their defense mechanisms, many cancer cells send signals to reduce immune system activity around the tumor. While this research is still early, the ability to rewire cellular functions and the potential for therapeutic applications is exciting.

The future may hold intriguing opportunities to radically engineer cells into cancer fighting powerhouses. While it sounds like science fiction, recent work has shown the technology exists to design and build a type of cell. Imagine a customized cellular therapy that would have the best cancer fighting features of the immune system, but only focused on combating cancers when needed. Is it even possible to engineer cells that have these important features but not the drawbacks?

This type of cellular engineering is of particular interest to me – throughout my career I have been interested in how cells work on the molecular level. I have strived to understand cells by studying complex biological systems and then learn how to harness that biology in the form of novel therapeutics for cancer and that have the potential to make a positive impact on patients’ lives.

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Jaquelin Finley
Email: Jaquelin.finley@abbvie.com
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