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New immunotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer will save lives

10 March 2021


We know that finding new effective treatments for ovarian cancer is vital to ensuring women with ovarian cancer have a better chance of survival. The biggest impact we can make is funding scientific research that will develop new treatment options, especially for women who do not respond well to current treatments. A type of treatment called immunotherapy could be key to working towards our shared vision - a world where no woman dies of ovarian cancer.

Immunotherapy could be the key to providing more effective treatment for ovarian cancer patients. Ovarian Cancer Action is investing in three exciting research projects that will investigate how the immune system can once again be used to fight ovarian cancer - each with a unique lens.

What is immunotherapy?

Many cancers are detected and eliminated by the immune system before they are ever detected. However, some cancers ‘dodge’ the immune system and progress on to threaten our health. Cancers have an immunosuppressive nature, which means tumours can influence the immune system to not work properly and help to support its growth.  

Immunotherapy is a new and highly effective treatment that ‘boosts’ the immune system to kill these tumours. Where chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to target fast-growing tumours, it cannot tell which fast-growing cells are cancerous or not, so healthy fast-growing cells like your hair and skin are also affected. Immunotherapy works by boosting the body’s own immune system, enabling it to recognise and eliminate cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells alone. 

Why is immunotherapy now needed for ovarian cancer?

Whilst significant advances have been made in surgery and chemo-therapy based treatments for ovarian cancer, the survival rates have only modestly improved. Immunotherapy has revolutionised treatment of many cancers, but the results for ovarian cancer have not yet been as successful. This is because ovarian cancers are particularly good at tricking the immune system into not killing it. New immunotherapies that reduce the immunosuppressive tumour environment need to be developed to treat women successfully.  

Developing an ovarian cancer vaccine at the University of Oxford

Professor Ahmed Ahmed at the University of Oxford wants to find ways to boost the immune system during ovarian cancer, which could potentially lead to the development of a therapeutic vaccine. 

Ovarian cancer cells have developed a clever way to exhaust the immune system so it cannot do its job. One way to re-energise the immune system is by extracting immune cells called T-cells from the patient, giving them a boost in the lab, and putting them back into the patient. Scientists have already found this vaccination technique is a powerful way to treat certain cancers. Professor Ahmed’s team wants to test out if T-cells can be trained to target a specific mutation in an ovarian cancer cell, and destroy the tumour completely. Also, based on their previous finding on immune cells found in the fallopian tube, they want to see if these cells can be used to kill cancer cells. If successful this innovative approach could be the most effective immunotherapy strategy for ovarian cancer developed yet. 

This project will work to overcome a problem that has prevented similar immunotherapies from being successful in ovarian cancer. As ovarian cancer has a lower number of genetic mutations compared to other cancers, it is harder to find ways which will make an effective vaccine. The team will instead look at a different type of mutation to overcome this problem.

How will this project help women with ovarian cancer?

This project is a logical next step from Professor Ahmed’s previous innovative discoveries.  If successful, the team at Oxford will be working with leading industry collaborators to ensure the patient specific vaccine can be implemented swiftly into clinical trials. This could potentially provide individualised cancer immunotherapy for ovarian cancer patients.

Using viruses for good to fight ovarian cancer at the University of Leeds

In today's Covid-19 environment, the word virus is not always welcomed. But at the University of Leeds, Professor Cook and his team are understanding how we can use viruses - for good.

The team wants to understand how the immune system is switched off in one of the most common forms of ovarian cancer and find ways to enhance the immune response using oncolytic viruses. Oncolytic viruses infect and destroy cancer cells without damaging normal healthy cells and stimulate the patient’s anti-tumour immune system response.  The team has developed an oncolytic virus which has already shown fantastic potential to lead to a new treatment for women with ovarian cancer.

How will this project help women with ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a difficult disease to treat as it is different from one person to the next. Immunotherapy using oncolytic viruses could provide a more specific and effective treatment that could improve survival rates and the quality of life for affected women.  As well as potentially providing treatment for a lot of ovarian cancer patients, the therapy could also help women who have become resistant to platinum-based therapy. If successful, the new treatment could potentially move into clinical trials and move quickly to patient benefit.

Using immunotherapy to fight particularly aggressive tumours at the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre

Professor Iain Mcneish and his team at the Ovarian Cancer Action Centre at Imperial College London want to understand how high grade serous ovarian cancers ‘corrupt’ our immune system and find ways to stop this.  

When a woman gets ovarian cancer, her immune system is alerted. Immune cells flock to the tumour to kill the cancer cells. Tumours that have a PTEN mutation (20 - 25% of all ovarian cancers) no longer produce the PTEN protein which usually protects the cell from cancer. This leads to rapid tumour growth and an immunosuppressed microenvironment, where immune cells are ‘recruited and corrupted’ to work for the tumour. These corrupted immune cells then feed tumour cells and build a better blood supply, helping the tumour to thrive. At the end of this project, the team are hoping to take this research to a clinical trial in women with PTEN-mutated ovarian cancer using drugs that are already available.

How will this project help women with ovarian cancer?

There has been little improvement in the survival for this type of ovarian cancer in 20 years. In a previous project, the team have already proven that tumours with a PTEN mutation grow more rapidly and are less likely to respond to chemotherapy than those without. If this project is successful, potential clinical trials will lead to better survival for women with this type of ovarian cancer. 

Click here to sign up to the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Network