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Stanford researchers develop a new target for immunotherapy: sugars

2429240906_615c06ede1_oCancer immunotherapies have been big news in the past few years, particularly after former President Jimmy Carter’s melanoma was successfully treated with one such immune-stimulating therapy.

What I hadn’t known before working on a recent story is that all immunotherapies currently available activate the immune system in the same way (they aim for a pair of proteins found on cancer cells and some immune cells.)

Chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, told me that many more pathways exist that cancer cells exploit for evading the immune system. Any of those could also make a potential target for immunotherapies.

One that she’s recently gone after is a sugar that often coats breast tumor cells like sugar crystals on a gumdrop. When it is present, it appears to tell the immune system to turn a blind eye. Bertozzi developed a way of essentially mowing down those sugars and exposing breast cancer cells to the immune system.

In my story, I quote Bertozzi:

'This is a whole new dimension to immune therapy,' Bertozzi said, adding that she thinks it could be the first of many therapeutic approaches involving the sugars that surround cells, called the glycocalyx.

'People in this field are starting to appreciate that there are many different nodes that you need to affect to get a more robust immune reaction against a tumor, and the glycocalyx appears to be one of those nodes,' she said.

This work is still in a lab dish, but Bertozzi hopes to be able to develop it into a therapy for people.

Previously: Immunotherapy: New hope in treating cancer, Stanford Medicine to join $250 million Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and Cancer and the sugars that coat our cells: A TEDxStanford presentation
Photo by Mauren Veras

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