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.

CIRM Board Approves New Clinical Trial for Breast Cancer Related Brain Metastases

Dr. Saul Priceman

Yesterday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $9.28 million to Dr. Saul Priceman at City of Hope to conduct a clinical trial for the treatment of breast cancer related brain metastases, which are tumors in the brain that have spread from the original site of the breast cancer.

This award brings the total number of CIRM-funded clinical trials to 56. 

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in women, both in the United States (US) and worldwide.  It is estimated that over 260,000 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and 1 out of 8 women in the US will get breast cancer at some point during her lifetime. Some types of breast cancer have a high likelihood of metastasizing to the brain.  When that happens, there are few treatment options, leading to a poor prognosis and poor quality of life. 

Dr. Priceman’s clinical trial is testing a therapy to treat brain metastases that came from breast cancers expressing high levels of a protein called HER2.   The therapy consists of a genetically-modified version of the patient’s own T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells.  The T cells are modified with a protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that recognizes the tumor protein HER2.  These modified T cells (CAR-T cells) are then infused into the patient’s brain where they are expected to detect and destroy the HER2-expressing tumors in the brain.

CIRM has also funded the earlier work related to this study, which was critical in preparing the therapy for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

“When a patient is told that their cancer has metastasized to other areas of the body, it can be devastating news,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM.  “There are few options for patients with breast cancer brain metastases.  Standard of care treatments, which include brain irradiation and chemotherapy, have associated neurotoxicity and do little to improve survival, which is typically no more than a few months.  CAR-T cell therapy is an exciting and promising approach that now offers us a more targeted approach to address this condition.”

The CIRM Board also approved investing $19.7 million in four awards in the Translational Research program. The goal of this program is to help promising projects complete the testing needed to begin talking to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about holding a clinical trial.

Dr. Mark Tuszynski at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) was awarded $6.23 million to develop a therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI). Dr. Tuszynski will use human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to create neural stem cells (NSCs) which will then be grafted at the injury site.  In preclinical studies, the NSCs have been shown to help create a kind of relay at the injury site, restoring communication between the brain and spinal cord and re-establishing muscle control and movement.

Dr. Mark Humayun at the University of Southern California (USC) was awarded $3.73 million to develop a novel therapeutic product capable of slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

The approach that Dr. Humayun is developing will use a biologic product produced by human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). This material will be injected into the eye of patients with early development of dry AMD, supporting the survival of photoreceptors in the affected retina, the kind of cells damaged by the disease.

The TRAN1 awards went to:

Stay tuned for our next blog which will dive into each of these awards in much more detail.