Scientists from the University of Southampton have discovered an important way that the immune system can learn to recognise and fight cancers. The team, led by Professor Aymen Al-Shamkhani and funded by Cancer Research UK, has shown that a protein called Akt, is vital for the way the body remembers a cancer it has eradicated. The body’s immune system includes cytotoxic T cells, which actively seek out and destroy infections or cancers. When they have dealt with the danger the majority of T cells die, but the remaining ones turn into memory cells, which can recognise the threat if it comes back. However, how this actually works has previously not been clear.

The Southampton team has found that a protein called Akt has a big effect on the number and type of memory T cells that a danger signal can generate. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, shows that Akt is critical for survival of T cells when they turn into memory cells and for how these can then react to future threats. Professor Al-Shamkhani, a Professor of Immunology at the University of Southampton, says that: “If we can harness Akt to boost the memory cells in numbers and ability we could offer more protection against cancer.” He added: “Immunotherapy has shown great promise as a new type of treatment for cancer, but we need to find ways to improve the body’s immune memory for cancer cells. If we can get the body’s immune system to recognise cancers faster and better, that will be a big help in finding more effective treatments.” Dr Justine Alford, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, says: “By revealing more about how the immune system learns to recognise and attack cancers, this laboratory study may have identified a way to make immunotherapy more effective and longer-lasting. The next step will be to see if this approach works, and is safe for patients.”

Over the past 40 years the University of Southampton has made a number of advances in cancer immunology and immunotherapy research with a reputation for its ‘bench to bedside’ results. This year the University will open the Centre for Cancer Immunology. It is the first of its kind in the UK and will bring world leading cancer scientists under one roof and enable interdisciplinary teams to expand clinical trials and develop lifesaving drugs.


Researchers use tiny 3D spheres to combat tuberculosis at University of Southampton

Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new 3D system to study human infection in the laboratory. The team, which includes infection researchers, engineers and bioinformaticians in Southampton and University College London, have used an electrostatic encapsulation technique to make tiny 3D spheres within which human cells are infected with tuberculosis (TB) bacteria to generate conditions that more closely reflect events in patients. The model allows the researchers to further investigate what happens in a human body when TB develops, with a long term aim of identifying new antibiotic treatments and vaccines. The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and is published in mBio and eLife.

Professor Paul Elkington, who leads the Southampton TB research group, commented: “We believe this is a really exciting development for the field of tuberculosis research. The 3D sphere can be created with a collagen matrix so it is more like a human lung. This produces an environment which allows particular antibiotics that are important in treating patients to kill the infection, which they cannot do in other 2D model systems. This system will help us speed up the process of finding treatments and vaccines for human tuberculosis, an infection that kills 1.8 million people per year.” Additionally the 3D spheres are able to prolong experiments for up to three weeks, more than four times longer than standard 2D model systems. This gives researchers more information about how the infection develops and the effect of different interventions over time. The next phase of the research will be in collaboration with the African Health Research Institute in Durban, in a project being funded by an MRC Global Challenges Research Fund Foundation Award worth £350,000. Durban has a very high incidence of TB and ideal laboratory infrastructure to introduce the 3D model to study cells from patients at high risk of tuberculosis.

Professor Elkington added: “We are delighted to extend our research and have the opportunity to combine diverse expertise to develop an advanced laboratory system that can be applied to a wide range on infections, especially the infections that are prevalent in resource-poor countries. We will use our 3D model to integrate engineering and biological approaches with clinical specimens to create an entirely new system of studying infection.” Dr Al Leslie, of the Africa Health Research Institute, said: "There is a huge amount to be gained from infectious disease biologists and engineers working together, as they push each other out of their comfort zones and force a new perspective on the problem being tackled. This grant is the start of what we hope to be a long-term collaboration that will bring real innovation to our TB research programmes and speed up the pace of discovery to fight this deadly epidemic."

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