New cancer treatment may reawaken the immune system

Immunotherapy is a promising strategy to treat cancer by stimulating the body’s own immune system to destroy tumor cells, but it only works for a handful of cancers. MIT researchers have now discovered a new way to jump-start the immune system to attack tumors, which they hope could allow immunotherapy to be used against more types of cancer.

Their novel approach involves removing tumor cells from the body, treating them with chemotherapy drugs, and then placing them back in the tumor. When delivered along with drugs that activate T cells, these injured cancer cells appear to act as a distress signal that spurs the T cells into action.

“When you create cells that have DNA damage but are not killed, under certain conditions those live, injured cells can send a signal that awakens the immune system,” says Michael Yaffe, who is a David H. Koch Professor of Science, the director of the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Yaffe and Darrell Irvine, who is the Underwood-Prescott Professor with appointments in MIT’s departments of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and an associate director of the Koch Institute, are the senior authors of the study, which appears in Science Signaling. MIT postdoc Ganapathy Sriram and Lauren Milling PhD ’21 are the lead authors of the paper.

One class of drugs currently used for cancer immunotherapy is checkpoint blockade inhibitors, which take the brakes off of T cells that have become “exhausted” and unable to attack tumors. These drugs have shown success in treating a few types of cancer but do not work against many others.

Yaffe and his colleagues set out to try to improve the performance of these drugs by combining them with cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs, in hopes that the chemotherapy could help stimulate the immune system to kill tumor cells. This approach is based on a phenomenon known as immunogenic cell death, in which dead or dying tumor cells send signals that attract the immune system’s attention.

Several clinical trials combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs are underway, but little is known so far about the best way to combine these two types of treatment.

The MIT team began by treating cancer cells with several different chemotherapy drugs, at different doses. Twenty-four hours after the treatment, the researchers added dendritic cells to each dish, followed 24 hours later by T cells. Then, they measured how well the T cells were able to kill the cancer cells. To their surprise, they found that most of the chemotherapy drugs didn’t help very much. And those that did help appeared to work best at low doses that didn’t kill many cells.

The researchers later realized why this was so: It wasn’t dead tumor cells that were stimulating the immune system; instead, the critical factor was cells that were injured by chemotherapy but still alive.