With a $3.7 million federal grant, MU is taking the first step in an effort to produce a more effective immunotherapy treatment for cancer patients.

This grant is part of the National Institutes of Health “Cancer MoonShot Initiative” whose goal is to make a decade’s worth of cancer research progress within five years, according to the NIH website.

The National Institutes of Health awarded the grant to University of Missouri School of Medicine Associate Professor Dr. Diana Gil Pagés.

According to an MU Public Health Relations release, Gil Pagés is using the grant to further research on immunotherapy and its effectiveness by teaching the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells.

Gil Pagés explained that the immune system’s function is to protect an individual from infection.

In the same way that an immune system can build an immunity against the common cold, immunotherapy helps train the immune system to recognize and target cancer cells, she said.

Immunotherapy is becoming a more popular treatment option for cancer patients, the release says, because it is able to target cancer cells specifically versus treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation that target healthy tissue as well as the cancerous ones.

Gil Pagés’ goal is to find a better way to predict whether or not certain immunotherapy treatments will work for a patient, the release said. At present immunotherapy has been found to work in some patients and not in others.

The research will be completed on animal test subjects because of the potential for undesired side effects that can occur with immunotherapy as well as the lack of knowledge about how it works on select patients, the release notes.

“The immune experience is different in each human, so we are trying to introduce that variable in our mice,” Gil Pagés said. “We’re doing experiments when mice are genetically diverse and also immune diverse so we can compare that to our simplified model where the mice have identical genes and no history of disease.”

In an interview, Gil Pagés said her research will focus on the immune system’s T cells, which are one of the components the system uses to protect the body from disease.

“It’s in the bloodstream and looks for signs of infections, as well as signs of tumors,” Gil Pagés said.

Gil Pagés hypothesizes that by injecting a compound called a “fab fragment” that targets the immune system’s T cells, she will help the T cells become sensitive to potential cancer cells.

Similar to programming a home system to prevent an intruder, Gil Pagés hopes “fab fragments” will work as a tool to help the T cells become more aggressive in recognizing and attacking potential threats.

“The fab will then become the prototype of medicine that we can use on mice, and we will have to refine the drug so that it will be safer for people,” Gil Pagés said.

Clinical trials are not in this grant, but if these trials with mice are successful, then researchers will be able to seek a grant to begin research with people, which is ultimately the long term goal, according to Gil Pagés.

Gil Pagés hopes to find out whether or not these immunotherapy treatments are safe and effective on their own, as well as combined with other types of treatments.

“Developing diverse immunotherapies to then combine with more traditional approaches like surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy,” Gil Pagés said, “is going to be the key to cure cancer.”

  • Community reporter, fall 2019 Studying magazine editing Reach me at lapnkg@missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5720.

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