Led by Professor James Brenton, this project explored the immune system and its potential to transform ovarian cancer treatments by learning more about high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) tumours.
|University of Cambridge, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
|June 2019 to May 2022
Why was this research needed?
Immunotherapy has the potential to improve cancer treatments as radically as antibiotics have transformed the control of infection.
Previous research by Dr Martin Miller showed that the immune system may play an important role in slowing the growth of metastatic ovarian cancer - cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
This project aimed to understand more about what happens in and around high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) tumours – a space called the tumour micro-environment (TME). Tumour microenvironments are very complex. Learning more about them could help explain why some tumours respond well to chemotherapy and some don’t. Ultimately, increased knowledge of the TME will help researchers find new potential drugs to treat HGSOC.
How did it progress?
There were three major developments in this project that have progressed our understanding of the TME, and the cells around ovarian cancer tumours.
Firstly, computational researchers, Dr Zeynep Kalendar-Atak and Oliver Cast developed a new tool for analysing the tumour microenvironment.
They benchmarked seven tools and introduced a new one called consensusTME that integrates those tools into a more joined up approach.
Secondly, tumour samples were collected from women at various stages of treatment, and this tool was used to better understand the TME and uncover the potential for chemotherapy to increase the level of helpful immune cells in and around tumours of people with high-grade serous ovarian cancer.
The team used computational analysis of measurements of all 20,000 genes and analysed millions of data points, which gives an indication of the enormous complexity of this project. They found that the TME of this type of ovarian cancer is extremely complex and diverse, which may explain why some tumours respond well to chemotherapy and some don’t.
Thirdly, this project has increased our understanding of how chemotherapy affects interactions between immune cells and tumour cells. In the samples collected following chemotherapy, there was an increase in nearby immune cell activity, suggesting that chemotherapy can increase the ability to spark an immune response towards some tumours.
What happens next?
This research has increased understanding of the diverse nature of the cells around high grade serous ovarian cancer tumours, and takes us a step closer to new personalised treatments that could combine chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
Annwen Jones OBE, Chief Executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said:
I’m very proud that Target Ovarian Cancer is playing a pioneering role in funding research in this area. These promising early findings underline the opportunities that we now have to transform the future through research and give us all hope of finding much-needed new ovarian cancer treatments.
The research team are now taking this work to the next stage – exploring how cancer cells interact with immune cells in the presence or absence of chemotherapy. By understanding this highly complex interaction, researchers may be able to refine future treatments to enhance the killing capacity of immune cells to clear cancer cells from the body.
Find out more about the project