New drug offers cancer hope

Medicine being developed could help the body’s immune system to destroy hidden cancer cells, research suggests.

Edinburgh scientists have shown that a protein called Focal Adhesion Kinase, or FAK - which is often overproduced by tumours - enables cancer cells to elude attacks by the immune system.

This in turn could lead to a new use for FAK inhibitors - a class of drugs that stop FAK from working.

Tumour role

FAK sends signals to help healthy cells move and grow. However, when it is overproduced in tumours it enables cancer cells to hide from the immune system.

A team led by Dr Alan Serrels of the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre has found that an experimental FAK inhibitor allows the immune system to recognise cancer cells as a threat.

Immune function

This is the first time that FAK inhibitors have been shown to influence the ability of the immune system to recognise cancer.

Their use could increase the effectiveness of existing immunotherapies by making cancer cells more visible to the immune system.

The research is published today in the journal Cell.

Researchers say the drug is already in early stage clinical trials and could potentially be an excellent complement to existing immunotherapy treatments.

Fighting cancer

Because it works within tumour cells rather than influencing the immune cells directly, it could offer a way to reduce the side effects of treatments that harness the power of the immune system.

Dr Serrels explains: “This exciting research reveals that by blocking FAK, we’ve now found a promising new way to help the immune system recognise cancer and fight it.”

The research was carried out in mice with a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, but is likely to also apply to other cancers. The results show that tumours completely disappeared when the mice were given FAK inhibitors.

The work was funded by Cancer Research UK, the European Research Council, and the Medical Research Council.