UMN researchers find new way to fight tumors

Immune cells could be repurposed to attack tumors and aid in future cancer treatment.

by Katie Salai

Groundbreaking research at the University of Minnesota found a novel approach to tumor therapy that could be pivotal in future cancer treatments.

The University’s Center for Immunology discovered that virus-specific T cells, which are responsible for protecting the body against infections, are also found in tumors, according to a study released Feb. 4. The team plans to repurpose these T cells to fight tumors and eventually combine their research with existing treatments.

“This was … a sort of revolutionary change in how people treat cancer, in terms of using a person’s own immune system to attack tumors,” said CFI researcher David Masopust. “Putting those T cells to work for you, they’re wonderful killing machines, but they are just sitting there doing nothing. We found a way to turn them on against the tumor.” 

Existing immune system tumor treatments were critical in the study, Masopust said. His team discovered that the immune system organizes T cells within tumors, which goes against what was previously thought.

“People kind of just assumed all your immune cells in your tumor, most of them are involved in the tumor somehow or are tumor-specific,” said Pamela Rosato, a postdoctoral researcher in CFI. “We found, and other groups found, that there are these virus-specific T cells in human tumors, which I think is a big innovative step.”

The recent discovery found that virus-specific T cells can be used to locally attack different tumors throughout the body — repurposing them for tumor therapy and providing firm footing for their intended goal of human clinical trials.

“When we … got our first human patient sample, I did think we were on the right track and I did think we would see virus-specific T cells,” Rosato said. “But the magnitude at which we saw them was very surprising, it was kind of a jumping up and down moment … that was kind of an exciting outbreak.”

In the future, the researchers hope to work with experts in related fields to apply the study’s findings and have already been collaborating with specialists in brain and ovarian cancer. 

“There have been clinical partners that helped with the study … they helped drive the experiment from models into the human data, so that’s been very helpful and made the data that much more relevant,” said Vaiva Vezys, a researcher in CFI. 

Masopust said this project is part of a larger central theme of how the immune system surveys the body and how it handles protection. 

“The nice thing about that theme is that it sort of crosses into diseases of inflammation, autoimmune [diseases], allergies, infectious diseases, vaccines,” Masopust said. “So even though we’re a very focused lab, the implications are broad.”