Treatment hope for stomach cancers

Treatment hope for stomach cancers

Illuminate newsletter index page, June 2018
June 2018

Tracy Putoczki and Lorraine O'Reily
(L-R) Dr Tracy Putoczki and Dr Lorraine O’Reily were part
of a team that discovered stomach cancers might be susceptible
to immunotherapy.

Researchers have found that the ‘odd one out’ in a family of cancer-development proteins is critical for preventing stomach cancers.

The surprise discovery suggests stomach cancers might be susceptible to immunotherapy, a new approach revolutionising treatment of certain cancers.

Stomach cancers are relatively common in Australia. Around 2000 cases are diagnosed each year, including nearly twice as many men as women. The disease is often not diagnosed until an advanced stage, requiring drastic treatments such as removal of the stomach, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Survival rates are low, and improved therapies are urgently needed.

The study, published in the journal Immunity, was led by Institute researchers Dr Lorraine O’Reilly, Dr Tracy Putoczki and Professor Andreas Strasser, with Professor Steve Gerondakis from Monash University.

Odd one out in the family

The research team found that switching off a gene called NF-kB1 caused spontaneous development of stomach cancers.

Dr O’Reilly said the finding was unexpected because other NF-kB1 family members promote cancer when expressed at a high – not low – levels. 

“Now, for the first time, we’ve identified the ‘odd one out’ in this family of proteins."

"We were surprised to find that the abnormally low expression – or ‘loss’ – of this particular NF-kB1 family member actually drove the development of stomach cancers.

"The defects that led to lower than normal levels of NF-kB1 kick-started uncontrolled inflammation in the stomach and, over the long-term, led to invasive stomach cancers,” Dr O’Reilly said.

Targeting the immune system

Dr Putoczki said the stomach tumours showed signs they may respond to immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

“The stomach cancer cells have markers that indicate they would respond to a type of immunotherapy called ‘immune checkpoint inhibitors’, in particular anti-PDL1 immunotherapy, which is already used with great success in the treatment of melanoma and certain other cancers.

"This research provides compelling evidence for further investigation of immunotherapy for treating stomach cancer." 

"The findings also provide the first model for preclinical testing of these treatments," Dr Putoczki said.

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