Targeting Tregs for cancer treatment

After recently joining the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) as Head of the Tissue and Tumour Immunity Laboratory, Dr Ajithkumar Vasanthakumar has been awarded the highly prestigious NHMRC Investigator grant for his cutting-edge research exploring Regulatory T cells (Tregs) which aims to transform the future of cancer treatment.

Ajith was just in high school when Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from a single cell, was born in Scotland. It was a world away from his high school in southern India, but it sparked a curiosity of genetic engineering and a love of science that eventually brought him to the other side of the world.

“I’ve always loved science; my father was a teacher and so I was always learning. I never really expected to work in cancer research to be honest, my initial work was in biotechnology, but as my career progressed my research started to focus on immunology, and so I have found myself in this exciting area.”

Scientific interest to fast-paced career

After finishing his PhD in Biotechnology, Ajith took up an opportunity to start his postdoc at the Burnet Institute where he began working on immune cells. After a brief stint, he joined the Molecular Immunology division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, before becoming a Research Fellow at the Peter Doherty Institute.

“It was at WEHI where I initiated studies on understanding how Tregs adapt to different tissues. I made the landmark discovery that Tregs in the adipose tissue require a growth factor called IL-33. This forms the basis of my current research of investigating tissue specific homeostatic mechanisms of Tregs.”

Cutting edge cancer research

In February this year Ajith was recruited to the ONJCRI to study the mechanisms of Treg mediated immune suppression in cancer and discover methods to tackle this urgent clinical need which has ultimately earned him the highly regarded NHMRC Investigator grant.

Regulatory T Cells, or Tregs, are suppressor immune cells that reside in almost every organ of the body. They play a key role in suppressing an immune response and preventing autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory conditions. However, in the context of cancer, they dampen beneficial cancer killing immune responses and consequently promote cancer.

“Targeting or blocking suppressor immune cells is a good strategy for the treatment of cancer. Tregs are known to promote cancer by suppressing cancer killing immune cells. My group aims to identify a mechanism that could be harnessed to target Tregs for cancer treatment.”

While Tregs are harmful in the context of cancer, they are essential to prevent autoimmune diseases. Blocking or targeting all Tregs in the body would for many people lead to autoimmune complications.

“Our research aims to discover molecules and pathways that could be used to target Tregs within the tumour or tumour bearing tissue. This precision approach will therefore circumvent any adverse effects of systemic Treg targeting for cancer treatment.”

“We hope to do this by identifying molecules utilised by Tregs to migrate and sustain in tumours or tumour bearing organs and block these mechanisms to disable Tregs.  This approach will specifically block Tregs within tumours or tumour bearing organs to avoid autoimmune complications.”

With immune suppression a major driver of cancer and bottle neck in cancer immunotherapy, Ajith’s research is hugely important and is critical for the treatment of cancer.

“Several of the current immunotherapy approaches are unsuccessful in diverse cancer types (breast and colon for example) and Treg targeting would potentially improve the efficacy of existing immunotherapy modalities. Metastasis is a grave concern in the cancer field and targeting Tregs could also serve as a treatment option for metastatic cancer.”

Transforming cancer treatment

Ajith’s work is exciting to say the least, he talks enthusiastically about the potential of his pioneering research and what cancer treatment might look like in the not-so-distant future.

“While several existing methods are aimed at boosting cancer killing immune cells, treatment approaches to revert immune suppression is lacking. Precision targeting of Tregs will emerge as the next generation immunotherapy strategy to combat cancer.”

“The future of cancer research is exciting. We’ve come a long way over the past 50 years, from initially cutting out tumours, to targeted radiation and chemotherapy and now Immunotherapy, which is revolutionizing cancer treatment. It’s exciting to think where we could be in another 50 years.”