Giving immune cells the codes to beat cancer

Lih Yin Tan

Lih Yin Tan, PhD Student at the Vascular Biology and Cell Trafficking Laboratory, Centre for Cancer Biology

PhD student Lih Yin Tan is building upon current immunotherapy treatment to ultimately block cancer cells and stop tumours from growing, specifically improving treatment for melanoma.

While immunotherapy, the idea of alerting immune cells to the existence of cancer in the body to allow them to find and destroy the disease, has been proven to be one of the most successful treatments for melanoma, it has significant limitations that need to be addressed.

The overall aim of Lih’s research is to build on the knowledge already known about immunotherapy and take it to the next level. While cancer cells hide behind blood vessel barriers in the body, immune cells are only allowed entry if they have the right access code (aka proteins) to get through. Lih’s work looks at finding and identifying these protein codes, and giving them to the immune cells so they can function effectively.

“The white blood cells need to have the right access codes that correspond to the protein locks on the blood vessels to get past the blood vessel barrier and into the tumour, where they can do the killing," says Lih Yin Tan.

“Apart from normal blood vessels formed by specialised cells, melanoma cells themselves can also form blood vessel like structures, a process known as vasculogenic mimicry. We’ve shown that the melanoma cells also express the same protein locks like the normal blood vessel cells, which provides extra assistance for the melanoma to grow and metastasise.”

As well as this, Lih’s research is looking at a key protein called desmoglein-2 (DSG2), which controls melanoma cell-cell adhesion.

“It is important for cells to be able to bond to each other to form these blood vessel-like structures. What we have identified is by blocking this DSG2 adhesion molecule, these melanoma cell lined blood vessels do not form.

“With collaborators in Melbourne, we have already identified that blocking DSG2 slows tumour growth.

“My PhD is contributing towards a bigger cancer treatment, but there is still a lot of work ahead and further research is required to combat tumours.”

Just over a year ago, PhD student Lih Yin Tan gave a presentation at the University of South Australia Three Minute Thesis competition entitled Mission Immune Possible. The presentation put forth the idea of harnessing immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer by giving immune cells the right access codes to find and beat cancer cells. Lih won the People’s Choice Award, as voted by the audience. Jump ahead a year, and her research is now well underway. Watch her video here.

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