Boosting the immune system to fight cancer

7 April 2016 | Adjunct Professor Karen Canfell

Professor Stuart Tangye from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has been funded by Cancer Council NSW since 2002 for his pioneering research on the link between the immune system and cancer. Professor Tangye has just received a brand new grant from Cancer Council NSW, which could ultimately lead to a brand new cancer vaccine.

What’s the immune system got to do with cancer?

  • One of the main jobs of our immune system is to protect us from infectious diseases
  • Sometimes our immune system is deficient and lets us down
  • When people have immune deficiencies, infectious diseases can sometimes lead to cancer
  • It’s estimated that people with immune system problems are around 300 times more likely to get cancer than those with healthy immune systems

The Epstein-Barr virus and lymphoma

Professor Stuart TangyeProfessor Tangye has been honing in on the link between a particular immune deficiency called X-linked lymphoproliferative disease (XLP) and the Epstein-Barr virus. The Epstein-Barr virus is very common, with around 90% of people in the world having it at some point in their lives – sometimes without even realising. It can cause cold or flu-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all.

For most people, the Epstein-Barr virus is harmless. But people with XLP cannot control this virus. As a result, the virus runs rampant in their bodies and causes all kind of tissue damage. It can often lead to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the body’s lymphatic system, which produces our white blood cells. The Epstein-Barr virus has been linked with around 6 other types of cancer too.

The goal: a new cancer vaccine

So what if we could boost the immune system of people with XLP and build their defences against the Epstein-Barr virus? Could this stop them from getting cancer? These are the questions at the centre of Professor Tangye’s study.

As part of his new CCNSW research grant, Professor Tangye is studying patients with primary immune deficiencies to understand how errors in specific genes can cripple their immune system. This hinders their ability to fight virus infection, and cancer development.

This research will lead national and international strategies to enhance anti-viral and anti-cancer immunity. These strategies won’t just be for patients with immune deficiencies, but also for other people have an increased risk of developing cancer. Ultimately, this research will drive the creation of vaccines that can protect people with problems in their immune system from getting cancer.

Find out more about the research Cancer Council NSW is funding in 2016.