Can the immune system be beefed up to become a better cancer fighter? UAlberta medical research team aims to find out

A medical researcher with the University of Alberta received $100,000 in funding from the Canadian Cancer Society to further his work that could one day lead to cancer vaccines.

Raquel Maurier - 22 February 2013

Kevin Kane, a researcher in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, has focused his research on how cancer cells attract the attention of the immune system's killer cells. Kane wants to learn how cancer cells trigger the immune system to increase the number of killer cells that seek out and destroy cancer.

"If we could do that, we could convince the immune system to go from one soldier to an army of killer cells to attack cancer, essentially," says the researcher.

Technology has been developed to identify the types of genes produced by cancer cells and what those genes are expressing or outputting. Cancer cells and normal cells each express about 30,000 genes - although the gene makeups are different in each group.

Kane and his team want to use this technology to identify what cancer cells express that the immune system's killer cells recognize.

"If we know what those triggers are, we can use them to stimulate a patient's killer cells to increase. This would help the patient's body better fight off the cancer naturally - without the use of chemotherapy or radiation, which have negative health effects for patients."

A key concern in cancer is metastasis, when parts of the cancer break off and spread to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, it is typically deadly because the cancer travels to a part of the body where it starts to interfere with vital functions.

"But the nice thing about the immune system's killer cells is that they circulate throughout the body - they are designed to do that. They can search out and hunt down the cancer wherever it is in the body and kill the cancer cells. So if we can increase the army of the immune system killer cells, maybe we can spare patients' lives too.

"Another benefit of these killer cells is that they know the difference between normal, healthy cells and cancer cells. So beefing up the body's ability to produce these killer cells would be better for patients than chemotherapy or radiation, which kills both cancer cells and healthy cells."

Right now, Kane focuses his research on prostate cancer, but he thinks the science can be applied to various cancers. He hopes his group will discover that cancer genes typically produce some of the same products or proteins regardless of the type of cancer. If true, this could open the door to creating cancer vaccines, although that might be 15 years from now.

"Thanks to the generous support of donors like Women In Insurance Cancer Crusade (WICC), the Canadian Cancer Society is excited to support innovative thinkers like Dr. Kane," says Jason Holowachuk, board chair of the Canadian Cancer Society, Alberta/NWT Division. "We truly believe unconventional science has the potential to uncover new approaches to combat cancer - and our highly competitive peer review process has highlighted Dr Kane's work as one of the most promising cancer research projects, not only in Alberta, but in the country."

WICC is a group of men and women who are dedicated to mobilizing the Canadian insurance industry in the fight against cancer through research, support and education. WICC supported Kane's research via the Canadian Cancer Society and were equally impressed with his work, says Sacha Carey, a representative of the organization.

"As in any industry, insurance is not immune to the sad reality of cancer. WICC's Alberta chapter has proudly raised over $1.5 million dollars, as well as raised awareness and support among the insurance industry for finding the cure for this disease. We will not consider ourselves a complete success until we find the cure for cancer.

"We are truly looking forward to developing a long lasting relationship with Dr. Kane and his studies, and hope to provide him more financial support in the future. WICC Alberta is growing, looking to expand the chapter into Edmonton and will then look to grow their relationship with the University of Alberta, just as they have with the researchers at the University of Calgary."