The immune system plays a decisive role in the fight against tumor cells. However, when tumor cells themselves prevent activation of the immune system, the immune system fails to destroy cancer cells. The cancer drug interferon-α could probably neutralize this blockade. This cytokine is being used successfully to treat various forms of cancer. However, some patients experience undesirable autoimmune reactions on administration of the drug. The German Cancer Aid (Deutsche Krebshilfe e.V.) is donating EUR 180,000 to fund a research project at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz that is to identify mechanisms underlying the effects of the cancer drug interferon-α (IFN-α) when it comes to fighting cancer cells by means of the blockade of so-called immunological tolerance processes. In addition, the researchers want to discover novel approaches to increase the efficacy of type I interferons in the treatment of cancer.
Interferon-α can trigger autoimmune reactions in patients, i.e., pathological reactions of the immune system. Interferon-α has been seen to date as an active substance that boosts the immune system and fights tumor cells directly. It is used, for example, in the therapy of malignant melanomas, certain forms of leukemia and cutaneous T-cell lymphomas. "The immune system is usually able to effectively destroy cancer cells. At the same time, however, there are also so-called tumor-associated tolerance processes that protect the tumor cells from being destroyed by the immune system. Autoimmune reactions, which are known side effects of therapies with IFN-α, may indicate that this anti-tumor treatment blocks tolerance mechanisms and thus improves the immune system's natural ability for tumor rejection," explained Professor Dr. Kerstin Steinbrink, senior physician at the Department of Dermatology of the Mainz University Medical Center, which is supervising the research project "Analysis of the Effect of Type I Interferons on Immunological Tolerance Processes" funded by the German Cancer Aid. The purpose of this project is to analyze the effects of IFN-α and other type I interferons on various immune cells that exhibit tolerogenic potential in vitro and also in melanoma patients.
The knowledge gained through this project should contribute to the development of improved therapy strategies for overcoming tolerance mechanisms associated with tumors. An additional objective is to enhance the efficacy of therapy with type I interferons. Steinbrink's research team is looking to reduce potential side effects as much as possible.
"This research project is taking a patient-oriented approach. The research team led by Professor Dr. Kerstin Steinbrink will profit from its expertise in the area of immunological tolerance that it has gained over several years," said Professor Dr. Ulrich Förstermann, Chief Scientific Officer of the Mainz University Medical Center.