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Mobilizing natural killer cells to improve immunotherapy for patients with ovarian cancer

This project has been completed

How can immunotherapy for one of the deadliest types of ovarian cancer be made more efficient and effective for patients?

Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, a newly funded Terry Fox New Investigator awardee at Dalhousie University in Halifax, hopes her work will help to determine whether natural killer (NK) cells can be mobilized to improve immunotherapy for women diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSC).

Dr. Boudreau, an immunologist, is the first investigator in Nova Scotia to receive the prestigious three-year, $450,000 award following a national competition that attracts applications from outstanding early-career cancer researchers across the country. 

“Immunotherapies are being discovered for many cancers and are one of the most promising forms of treatments we have, but so far we haven’t found one that works really well for ovarian cancer,” explains Dr. Boudreau. “Our goal is to see if NK cells, which are important players in our immune system and have proven to have cancer-fighting potential, can be used to give immunotherapies for ovarian cancer a boost.”

There’s a definite need to do this. According to statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society, ovarian cancers affect 2,800 Canadian women each year and nearly two-thirds of patients succumb to the disease. Although there are several subtypes, HGSC is the most common, comprising around 70 per cent of cases.

While immunotherapy is believed to be a promising way to treat ovarian cancers, most attempts to use it have been unsuccessful in most patients. These strategies have relied on the manipulation of T-cells and the administration of checkpoint-inhibiting antibodies, but researchers are finding that tumours commonly evade these therapies, rendering them inefficient. According to Dr. Boudreau, NK cells might be able to counteract this, as they use different signals to recognize if a cell is harmful, meaning they may be able to see the tumour and potentially attack it.

“If we can program the NK cells to use their unique mechanisms to recognize the tumours, then we would be able to promote them as a form of immunotherapy for ovarian cancer,” she says. Dr. Boudreau and her team at Dalhousie will work with a team of top Canadian scientists already funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute – the Immunotherapy Network (iTNT) – to map the signals that could be exploited by NK cells to recognize and attack HGSC tumours. They will also use novel approaches to study how these cells infiltrate and interact with the tumours, with the goal of developing ways to harness their power to fight against the cancer.

The New Investigator Award provides the funding and mentorship needed to make this possible, allowing Dr. Boudreau – and the entire iTNT team – to search for ways to make immunotherapy for ovarian cancer more efficient.

“The idea is that we will be able to tie the data we find with the data that is already being generated by iTNT so we will have a more holistic approach to understand how the immune system is interacting and engaging with the ovarian tumour so we will be able to pinpoint what needs help or what we can support with our immunotherapy strategy,” she says.

Mentoring Program: The ImmunoTherapy Network (iTNT)

Mentor: Dr. Brad Nelson