Newly discovered “don’t eat me” signal shows potential for ovarian and triple-negative breast cancer treatment

Stanford researchers have found that cancer cells have a protein called CD24 on their surface that enables them to protect themselves against the body’s immune cells.
Courtesy of Shutterstock

Getting a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating news in and of itself. Currently, there are treatment options that target three different types of receptors, which are named hormone epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER-2), estrogen receptors (ER), and progesterone receptors (PR), commonly found in breast cancer cells, . Unfortunately, in triple-negative breast cancer, which occurs in 10-20% of breast cancer cases, all three receptors are absent, making this form of breast cancer very aggressive and difficult to treat.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that proteins on the cell surface can tell macrophages, an immune cell designed to detect and engulf foreign or abnormal cells, not to eat and destroy them. This can be useful to help normal cells keep the immune system from attacking them, but cancer cells can also use these “don’t eat me” signals to hide from the immune system. 

An illustration of a macrophage, a vital part of the immune system, engulfing and destroying a cancer cell. Antibody 5F9 blocks a “don’t eat me” signal emitted from cancer cells. Courtesy of Forty Seven, Inc.

In fact, because of this concept, a CIRM-funded clinical trial is being conducted that uses an antibody called 5F9 to block a “don’t eat me” signal known as CD47 that is found in cancer cells. The results of this trial, which have been announced in a previous blog post, are very promising.

Further building on this concept, a CIRM-funded study has now discovered a potential new target for triple-negative breast cancer as well as ovarian cancer. Dr. Irv Weissman and a team of researchers at Stanford University have discovered an additional “don’t eat me” signal called CD24 that cancers seem to use to evade detection and destruction by the immune system.

In a press release, Dr. Weissman talks about his work with CD47 and states that,

“Finding that not all patients responded to anti-CD47 antibodies helped fuel our research at Stanford to test whether non-responder cells and patients might have alternative ‘don’t eat me’ signals.” 

The scientists began by looking for signals that were produced more highly in cancers than in the tissues from which the cancers arose. It is here that they discovered CD24 and then proceeded to implant human breast cancer cells in mice for testing. When the CD24 signaling was blocked, the mice’s immune system attacked the cancer cells.

An important discovery was that ovarian and triple-negative breast cancer were highly affected by blocking of CD24 signaling. The other interesting discovery was that the effectiveness of CD24 blockage seems to be complementary to CD47 blockage. In other words, some cancers, like blood cancers, seem to be highly susceptible to blocking CD47, but not to CD24 blockage. For other cancers, like ovarian cancer, the opposite is true. This could suggest that most cancers will be susceptible to the immune system by blocking the CD24 or CD47 signal, and that cancers may be even more vulnerable when more than one “don’t eat me” signal is blocked.

Dr. Weissman and his team are now hopeful that potential therapies to block CD24 signaling will follow in the footsteps of the clinical trials related to CD47.

The full results to the study were published in Nature.

Stanford study successful in transplant of mismatched stem cells, tissue in mice

Dr. Irv Weissman at Stanford University

A transplant can be a lifesaving procedure for many people across the United States. In fact, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, 36,528 transplants were performed in 2018. However, as of January 2019, the number of men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list is over 113,000, with 20 people dying each day waiting for a transplant and a new person being added to the list every 10 minutes.

Before considering a transplant, there needs to be an immunological match between the donated tissue and/or blood stem cells and the recipient. To put it simply, a “match” indicates that the donor’s cells will not be marked by the recipient’s immune cells as foreign and begin to attack it, a process known as graft-versus-host disease. Unfortunately, these matches can be challenging to find, particularly for some ethnic minorities. Often times, immunosuppression drugs are also needed in order to prevent the foreign cells from being attacked by the body’s immune system. Additionally, chemotherapy and radiation are often needed as well.

Fortunately, a CIRM-funded study at Stanford has shown some promising results towards addressing the issue of matching donor cells and recipient. Dr. Irv Weissman and his colleagues at Stanford have found a way to prepare mice for a transplant of blood stem cells, even when donor and recipient are an immunological mismatch. Their method involved using a combination of six specific antibodies and does not require ongoing immunosuppression.

The combination of antibodies did this by eliminating several types of immune cells in the animals’ bone marrow, which allowed blood stem cells to engraft and begin producing blood and immune cells without the need for continued immunosuppression. The blood stem cells used were haploidentical, which, to put it simply, is what naturally occurs between parent and child, or between about half of all siblings. 

Additional experiments also showed that the mice treated with the six antibodies could also accept completely mismatched purified blood stem cells, such as those that might be obtained from an embryonic stem cell line. 

The results established in this mouse model could one day lay the foundation necessary to utilize this approach in humans after conducting clinical trials. The idea would be that a patient that needs a transplanted organ could first undergo a safe, gentle transplant with blood stem cells derived in the laboratory from embryonic stem cells. The same embryonic stem cells could also then be used to generate an organ that would be fully accepted by the recipient without requiring the need for long-term treatment with drugs to suppress the immune system. 

In a news release, Dr. Weissman is quoted as saying,

“With support by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, we’ve been able to make important advances in human embryonic stem cell research. In the past, these stem cell transplants have required a complete match to avoid rejection and reduce the chance of graft-versus-host disease. But in a family with four siblings the odds of having a sibling who matches the patient this closely are only one in four. Now we’ve shown in mice that a ‘half match,’ which occurs between parents and children or in two of every four siblings, works without the need for radiation, chemotherapy or ongoing immunosuppression. This may open up the possibility of transplant for nearly everyone who needs it. Additionally, the immune tolerance we’re able to induce should in the future allow the co-transplantation of [blood] stem cells and tissues, such as insulin-producing cells or even organs generated from the same embryonic stem cell line.”

The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.