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Immune cell steroids help tumours suppress the immune system, offering new drug targets

July 30, 2020

A new study has revealed that tumours can evade the immune system by telling immune cells to produce immunosuppressive steroids. Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge, and MRC Cancer Unit, discovered that immune T cells from mouse skin and breast tumours secrete steroids, and that preventing this steroid production reduced growth of tumours in mice. The study found that either removing a key steroid-producing gene, or switching it off with a drug, dramatically slowed the formation or progression of cancers.

Reported in Nature Communications, the mouse study revealed this steroid signalling pathway contained potential drug targets for developing new types of cancer immunotherapy, although further human studies are needed.

The immune system is extremely complex. While immune cells protect the body from tumours and infections, some chemicals produced in the body can dampen down the immune system. This makes it much harder for the body to fight against cancer, and cancer immunotherapies that restore the activity of the immune system are urgently needed.

A previous study* had revealed that some immune cells, known as T cells, produced steroids after an infection had passed, to reduce their activity back to low levels again. The researchers wanted to find out if tumour T cells could behave in the same way.

The team tested T cells from melanoma and breast tumours in mice, using single cell RNA sequencing to see exactly which genes were switched on in each individual cell. The researchers discovered that T cells from tumours did produce steroids, which could potentially reduce their effectiveness at battling the tumour.

Dr Bidesh Mahata, the lead author from the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "For the first time, we could see that mouse tumour T cells were producing immunosuppressive steroids, even though T cells from healthy mice didn't. It appears that tumours could be instructing their T cells to produce steroids, which would then allow the tumours to evade the immune system and continue growing. This is a really exciting discovery as it means there might be a way of switching the steroid production off again to treat cancer. This is a new hope in cancer, particularly for those tumours that use this trick to suppress anti-tumour immunity."

To test switching off the steroid production, the researchers worked with mice that were missing a key steroid-synthesis gene - Cyp11a1 - from their T cells. They discovered that whereas tumours developed rapidly in normal, wild-type mice, tumour growth was inhibited in these knockout mice with any tumours being much smaller and slower to grow. They also showed that a drug that inactivates the Cyp11a1 protein, aminoglutethimide, also reduced the tumours in normal mice.

Dr Jacqui Shields from the MRC Cancer Unit Cambridge, said: "Using mouse models, we showed that preventing T cells from producing steroids made a huge difference to tumour growth, reducing it dramatically. We found that either removing the key gene, or preventing it from functioning with drugs, stimulated anti-tumour immunity. This suggests the steroid-production pathway could be a real contender in the search for drug targets for designing cancer immunotherapies, to help treat cancer patients."

Dr Sarah Teichmann, a senior author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "This study may pave the way for new hope in cancer immunotherapy. While these results are from mice, preliminary data from human tissues suggests that the same tumour defence may happen in people and we now need further research to show direct evidence in human cancer. If this is confirmed, in the future, it might be possible to target this immunosuppressive pathway, to create new treatments to switch the immune system back on, and help save lives."
-end-
Contact:

Dr Samantha Wynne, Media Officer
Wellcome Sanger Institute
Wellcome Genome Campus,
Hinxton, Cambridge, CB10 1SA, UK
Phone:+44 (0)1223 492368
Email: press.office@sanger.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

*Previous study at: https://www.sanger.ac.uk/news_item/2014-05-08-immune-cells-use-steroids/

Selected websites:

The University of Cambridge

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 107 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize.

Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.

The University sits at the heart of the 'Cambridge cluster', which employs 60,000 people and has in excess of £12 billion in turnover generated annually by the 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in and around the city. The city publishes 341 patents per 100,000 residents.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world leading genomics research centre. We undertake large-scale research that forms the foundations of knowledge in biology and medicine. We are open and collaborative; our data, results, tools and technologies are shared across the globe to advance science. Our ambition is vast - we take on projects that are not possible anywhere else. We use the power of genome sequencing to understand and harness the information in DNA. Funded by Wellcome, we have the freedom and support to push the boundaries of genomics. Our findings are used to improve health and to understand life on Earth. Find out more at http://www.sanger.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our Blog.

About Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation. https://wellcome.ac.uk/

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

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