Breast Cancer and the Immune System - Latest news • Breast Cancer Foundation NZ

Breast Cancer and the Immune System

Our immune system is pretty good at protecting us from harm. So why does it struggle to recognise and tackle breast cancer?

The immune system is a very impressive network of reactions and responses our body makes when infected or damaged. We are all born with one, but it develops and changes as we grow, adapting to the environments we live in and the germs we come in contact with!

There are two different types of immunity –innate and acquired. As the name suggests, innate immunity is in-built and quick to react when our body is under threat. Our innate immune system includes our skin, stomach acid and white blood cells called neutrophils.

The other part of our immune system is our acquired immunity. This system recognises infecting cells and learns the right response – this stops you getting sick if you are infected by the same bug again. A vaccination also works in this way; it stimulates your acquired immune system.

For a long time, scientists have been wondering how to use the immune system to combat cancer. Can we create an acquired response to destroy breast cancer?

To begin with our immune system does a good job of destroying cancerous cells; however, cancer is able to change and grow so quickly that the immune system just can’t keep up. If we could improve our immune systems’ cancer recognition and fighting ability, we could theoretically use our own body to destroy breast cancer. This has led to the fascinating field of immunotherapy which has been gaining international traction. Early success has been in cancers like melanoma, with the drug Keytruda; it’s taking longer to figure out how immunotherapy can help in other immune-sensitive cancers like breast cancer.

Here at BCFNZ, immunotherapy is a key research priority and we’re currently funding several exciting projects which focus around creating a breast cancer vaccine.

Our five-year partnership with the Ferrier Institute is working to create a therapeutic vaccine which will prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. We’re funding an associated project led by Dr Robert Weinkove from the Malaghan Institute, who is testing the ability of vaccines to prevent recurrence of HER2+ breast cancer. We are also funding Professor Sarah Young for her work on a personalised vaccine for triple negative breast cancer using a virus-based vector to infect cancer cells. Triple-negative breast cancer is the hardest to treat and currently has no targeted treatment - Sarah’s work is vital.

You may have also heard of CAR-T cell therapy. This type of immunotherapy takes T cells (part of the acquired immune system) from a patient’s blood and changes them in the lab so that they are able to attack cancer. The Malaghan Institute is also working on CAR-T therapy research.

This #WorldImmunologyDay we are hopeful for the future of immunotherapy in breast cancer treatment and excited by the research taking place right here in New Zealand!