New research finds link between T cells and throat cancer

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Research led by the Sydney-based Centenary Institute has discovered that immune cells accumulating within the tumour environment, called tumour-resident T cells, are a critical determining factor in the survival rates of patients suffering from throat cancer.

The Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology is a medical research institute located at the Camperdown campus of the University of Sydney.

The research, which has been reported in the ‘Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer’, suggests boosting tumour-resident T-cells could be beneficial to patients.

“Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) is a form of throat cancer. It can be caused by environmental factors such as smoking or by human papillomavirus infection (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women,” said Rehana Hewavisenti, lead author of the study and researcher at the Centenary Institute.

“We knew that patients with HPV-related OPSCC had far better clinical outcomes compared to other OPSCC patients but we didn’t know why,” she said.

The researchers examined sixty patient samples. They discovered that increased levels of tumour-resident T cells, whether in HPV or non-HPV OPSCC cases, was clearly associated with improved patient survival outcomes.

“It was the accumulation of these immune T-cells, in and around the tumour site that appeared to be key,” said Ms Hewavisenti.

The researchers also found that HPV OPSCC patients generally had far higher levels of tumour-resident T cells compared to their non-HPV OPSCC patient counterparts.

“We think these HPV positive patients tended to have better clinical outcomes as HPV infection is likely to favour the accumulation of these beneficial T-cells within the tumour area,” she said.

Dr Mainthan Palendira, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Human Viral and Cancer Immunology Laboratory and senior author on the research paper believes the research findings have major implications.

“Now that we understand how important this immune response is in relation to OPSCC, we can begin developing new treatment strategies focused on recruiting these favourable tumour-resident T cells directly to tumours,” he said.

Dr Palendira believes that looking at the amount of these T-cells in cancer could help clinicians to personalise the best treatment approach for individual patients.

“We also think that our research demonstrating viral (HPV) links with this tumour-resident T cell accumulation could help in future cancer vaccine development efforts too,” he said.