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New fusion molecule 'empowers immune system to fight cancer'


April 13, 2011 - Washington

Scientists are one step closer to tap the body's own resources to fight cancer.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have developed a molecule that lies dormant until it encounters a cancer cell, then suddenly activates and rouses the body's immune system to fight cancer cells directly.

They dub it the 'Pacman strategy' because it hinges upon molecular machines produced in abundance by tumors to chew through and gobble up particular chains of molecules.

The key feature of the work is a new type of fusion molecule with three parts: a potent immune cell activator; a second molecule to keep that molecule quiescent until it's needed; and a link between the two that gives scientists control over how the two interact.

In experiments, the team led by graduate student John Puskas and Prof John Frelinger used Interleukin-2 or IL-2, a cytokine or chemical messenger that amplifies the effects of the immune system. IL-2 has been central to the burgeoning field known as cancer immunotherapy; it turns on T cells and natural killer cells that recognize and kill cancer cells.

"One reason we chose IL-2 is that it's approved and used to treat patients today. If we're able to reduce the toxicity associated with it, perhaps it could be used more broadly," said Frelinger.

In experiments using the technology in the lab, the activity of IL-2 in the fusion Protein was weak but became 10 to 50 times more biologically active after cleavage. Importantly, in experiments in mice with cancer, tumor growth was inhibited in mice where IL-2 was turned on using the technology compared to mice in which it was not. In many of the treated mice, tumor cells could not be detected after one week.

A key to the technology is the molecular link between IL-2 and its inhibitor. Puskas and Frelinger built that link out of a chain of amino acids - building blocks of Proteins. Such chains are broken or cleaved constantly in the body by enzymes known as proteases. In these experiments, when the link is broken, IL-2 breaks free from its inhibitor and is suddenly available to activate other immune cells.

The approach is designed to turn on the immune system powerfully right in the neighborhood of cancer cells, to destroy those cells, but to avoid a system-wide immune response that could cause severe side effects.

The study was published online recently in the journal Immunology.

ANI

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