New T-cell receptor discovery may lead to cancer cure

The story aired on Channel 10’s The Project this week featuring Prof Jim McCluskey, Dept of Microbiology.

Recent research findings published in Nature Immunology show how a newly-discovered part of the human immune system could be used to treat cancer.

As the work is at an early stage, the findings have not yet been tested on patients - but they have enormous potential.

A research team from Cardiff University was responsible for the discovery, involving a number of collaborators from around the world including Professor Jim McCluskey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Head of the McCluskey Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The Cardiff team’s research showed that a T-cell receptor, now named MC.7.G5, targets a molecule called MR1, which is present on the surface of every cell in the human body. When the receptor binds to the cell via this molecule, it checks for the presence of cancer – and kills those cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed. The lab tests showed this T-cell and its receptor could find and kill a wide range of cancerous cells.

While T-cell cancer therapies already exist they are very specific and work best with blood cancers rather than in tumours.

“T-cells are white blood cells that provide us with specific immunity against bacterial pathogens and other germs. It turns out that these T-cells can also sometimes kill cancer cells…they can exert their immune function in a kind of designer capacity,” Professor McCluskey said in the Channel 10 report.

Professor McCluskey provided reagents and advice to the Cardiff team, helping to show how these novel T-cells were different from the normal T-cells that recognize the MR1 molecule. And to verify that these cells recognize a new target confined to cancer cells.

Dr Alexandra Corbett, Senior Research Officer and ARC Future Fellow in the McCluskey Research Group, noted that previous work from their laboratory, together with collaborator Professor Jamie Rossjohn (Monash), has shown that a range of different molecules can bind MR1. This supports the concept of the Cardiff discovery that this novel T-cell recognises MR1 on tumour cells -  but not normal healthy cells.

The Project’s special report aired on World Cancer Day, 4 February 2020.

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