Mutations in ‘Ras’ genes known to drive around 25% of human cancers, can protect the cancer cells from the immune system. These genes can suppress the immune system by increasing ‘PD-L1’ protein level. The findings of this study are further discussed in Immunity journal.
‘Ras mutations play an important role in various stages of cancer as they can cause cancer cells to grow and multiply. They can also suppress the immune system around tumors by increasing levels of a protein called ‘PD-L1’.’
“Understanding how different mutations protect cancer cells from the immune system will help us to offer patients more precise and effective treatments,” explains Dr. Matthew Coelho, first author of the paper from the Francis Crick Institute. “Antibodies that target PD-L1 proteins are currently used in the clinic, and they work very well in around a fifth of lung cancer patients. At the moment, doctors can measure PD-L1 levels to help determine which patients might respond best, but this only gives you half of the story”.
“For cancer immunotherapies targeting PD-L1 to work, you need two things: Firstly, you need PD-L1 to be blocking an immune attack in the patient’s tumor. Secondly, the immune system is only able to recognize and attack cancer cells that produce ‘antigens’, molecules that immune cells can bind to. Cancer antigens are currently difficult to test for clinically, so PD-L1 is now a major test for deciding if immunotherapy will work. It is therefore very important to understand what turns on PD-L1 in cancer.”
By revealing the causal link between Ras and PD-L1 levels, and the mechanisms behind it, the new study offers new possibilities for combination therapies using different drugs. As part of the study, mice with Ras mutant cancers were given compounds to counteract the effects of Ras signaling on PD-L1 expression. Their tumors were attacked by the immune system, slowing tumor growth.
“Our study highlights the fundamental role that Ras mutations play throughout the different stages of cancer,” explains senior author Professor Julian Downward, Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute and Head of the Lung Cancer Group at the ICR.
“We already knew that they played a key role in starting around a quarter of all human cancers, causing cancer cells to grow, multiply and spread. We now know that they also help to protect the cancer cells from our immune systems, making them more difficult to treat. Understanding the mechanisms behind this will help us to develop better treatments in future, for example boosting immunotherapy approaches with drugs that disrupt cancer’s defenses.” said Professor Julian Downward.