When the immune system comes up as a topic in everyday conversation, it’s usually related to fighting off a cold or flu. While our immune cells certainly do detect and neutralize invading bacteria and viruses, they also play a critical role in killing abnormal, cancerous cells from within our bodies.
“Don’t Eat Me” Signal 101
A white blood cell called a macrophage (macro = “big”; phage = “eater”) is part of the so-called innate immune system and acts as a first line of defense by patrolling our organs and gobbling up infected as well as cancerous cells (see macrophages in action in the cool video below).
Unfortunately, cancer cells possess the ability to cloak themselves and escape a macrophage’s engulfing grasp. Nearly all cancer cells carry a protein called CD47 on their surface. When CD47 binds to a protein called SIRPalpha on the surface of macrophages, a “don’t eat me” signal is triggered and the macrophage ignores the cancer cell.
Stanford researcher Irv Weissman and his team discovered this “don’t eat me” signal several years ago and showed that adding an antibody protein that binds tightly to CD47 interferes with the CD47/SIRPalpha signal. As a result, the anti-CD47 antibody deactivates the cancer cell’s “don’t eat me” signal and restores the macrophage’s ability to detect and kill the cancer cells.
Because CD47 is found on the surface of most cancer cells, this anti-CD47 antibody represents an exciting new strategy for targeting cancer stem cells – the cells thought to maintain cancer growth and cause tumor relapse – in a wide variety of cancers. In fact, CIRM has provided funding for three clinical trials, one sponsored by Stanford University and two by Forty-Seven Inc. (a company that was spun out of Stanford), that are testing anti-CD47 therapy for the treatment of the blood cancer acute myeloid leukemia (AML), as well as colon cancer and other solid tumors.
“Reaching Clinical Trials” does not equal “The Research is Done”
Although these clinical trials are underway, the Weissman team continues to seek new insights related to blocking the CD47 “don’t eat me” signal. They observed that although anti-CD47 led to increased macrophage-induced killing of most cancer cell samples tested, some were resistant to anti-CD47 and remained cloaked from macrophages. And even the cancer cells that did respond to the antibody varied widely in the amount of increased killing by macrophages.
These results suggested that alternate processes may exist that allow some cancers to evade macrophages even when the CD47 “don’t eat me” signal is blocked. In a report published this week in Nature Immunology, the researchers report the identification of a second, independent “don’t eat me” signal, which may lead to more precise methods to disarm a cancer’s evasiveness.
To track down this alternate “don’t eat me” signal, they looked for, but didn’t find, correlations between specific types of cancer cells and the cancer’s resistance to anti-CD47 treatment. So instead they analyzed surface proteins found on the various cancer cell samples and found that cancer cells that had high levels of MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) class I proteins were more likely to be resistant to anti-CD47 antibodies.
A Second “Don’t Eat Me” Signal
MHC class I proteins help another arm of the immune system, the adaptive immune response, detect what’s going inside a cell. They are found on nearly all cells and display, at the cell surface, bits of proteins sampled from inside the cell. If cells of the adaptive immune response, such as T or B cells, recognize one of those protein bits as abnormal or foreign, efficient killing mechanisms are kicked into high gear to destroy those cells.
But in the case of cancers cells, the MHC class I protein are harnessed as a “don’t eat me” signal by binding to a protein called LILRB1 on macrophages. When either the MHC class I proteins or LILRB1 were blocked, the “don’t eat me” signal was lifted and restored the macrophages’ ability to kill the cancer cells both in petri dish samples as well as in mice that carried human cancers.
Graduate student and co-lead author Amira Barkal described in a press release the impact of blocking both “don’t eat me” signals at the same time:
“Simultaneously blocking both these pathways in mice resulted in the infiltration of the tumor with many types of immune cells and significantly promoted tumor clearance, resulting in smaller tumors overall. We are excited about the possibility of a double- or perhaps even triple-pronged therapy in humans in which we combine multiple blockades to cancer growth.”
The Big Picture for Cancer Immunotherapies
Because MHC protein class I proteins play an important role in stimulating immune cells called T cells to kill cancer cells as part of the adaptive immune response, the level of MHC protein on an individual patient’s cancer cells could serve as an indicator, or “biomarker”, for what type of cancer therapy to pursue. The big picture implications of this idea are captured in the press release:
“Understanding the balance between adaptive and innate immunity is important in cancer immunotherapy. For example, it’s not uncommon for human cancer cells to reduce the levels of MHC class 1 on their surfaces to escape destruction by T cells. People with these types of tumors may be poor candidates for cancer immunotherapies meant to stimulate T cell activity against the cancer. But these cells may then be particularly vulnerable to anti-CD47 treatment, the researchers believe. Conversely, cancer cells with robust MHC class 1 on their surfaces may be less susceptible to anti-CD47.”