Researchers discover unique mechanism that regulates tumor growth in lung cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer in Germany and the disease affects both men and women. However, immunotherapies are successful in only 20 percent of cases. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered a special mechanism that regulates tumor growth in lung cancer. This opens up new possibilities in the treatment of lung cancer patients. The results were published in the journal Oncoimmunology.

The body's immune system sometimes responds to lung cancer but sometimes it fails, letting the cancer take over.

The immune system not only fights pathogens, but is also capable of recognizing and eliminating pathologically mutated cells. 'Sometimes the body's immune system responds to lung cancer but sometimes it fails, letting the cancer take over', says Prof. Dr. Susetta Finotto, head of the Department of Molecular Pneumology at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen. The reason that this immune response is switched off in lung cancer patients has not yet been sufficiently researched.

The body usually reacts to tumor cells with an immune response. An important signal molecule, the so-called transcription factor Tbet, plays a role in tumour defence, whereby T helper cells of group 1 (Th1 cells) and CD8 T cells (that combat tumors) are formed. The lung tumor grows if there is a lack of Tbet in the immune cells. Prof. Dr. Susetta Finotto and her team of researchers discovered this during previous research.

In the latest study carried out by Prof. Susetta Finotto's team, Dr. Katharina Kachler researched the role of so-called Treg cells in lung cancer in more detail for her dissertation. The translational study was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Denis Trufa and Prof. Dr. Horias Sirbu, both from the Department of Thoracic Surgery at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen.

The role of Treg cells in lung cancer

Treg cells play a special role in regulating the immune system. While Treg cells play an important role in preventing inflammatory response in the lung, not enough research has been carried out on their function in lung carcinoma. Research to date has shown, however, that Treg cells suppress the anti-tumor response of the body and thus promote tumor growth.

Researchers have now discovered that lung tumors are capable of reprogramming the immune response - they produce the messenger substance TGF-beta, a protein that regulates cell growth and induces Treg cells in the surroundings. This means that cells aren't activated to fight the cancer, but allow the tumor to grow instead. 'Precisely those Th1 cells with Tbet that are responsible for anti-tumor immune defense are the ones that are switched off', says Prof. Susetta Finotto. 'This newly-identified TGF beta-dependent mechanism in lung cancer is very important for the regulation of tumor growth in the lung and offers new approaches for lung cancer therapy', she explains. This discovery, which the researchers have published in the journal Oncoimmunology, could help to increase the survival rates of lung cancer patients. 'In order to make clinical immunotherapy, which is only successful in 20 percent of cases, more successful in future, our solution would be to give patients TGF inhibitors in addition to conventional immunotherapy, thus canceling out the Treg cell blockade that blocks the immune response to tumor growth', explains Prof. Finotto.

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