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Scientists investigating whether COVID immunity could be used to treat cancer

Researchers are exploring whether T-cell responses to COVID-19 infection and vaccination could be used to fight cancer.

Prof Alan Parker and his team work with adenoviruses, similar to the common cold, that can be reprogrammed as viral vectors to target and kill cancer .

In 2020, the team switched their focus from cancer research to help develop a vaccine against coronavirus. As vaccination programmes were rolled out worldwide in 2021, the team returned to cancer research with an additional focus.

Since most people in Western nations have either contracted COVID-19 or been vaccinated, most of the public will now have strong T-cell responses against the SARS- CoV-2 spike protein that will remain stable for a long period of time.

Prof Parker, Dr Carly Bliss and WCRC/ECMC-funded researcher Dr Mahulena Maruskova are now investigating whether this immunity can be redirected to help fight

cancer by using technologies to force cancer cells to present the SARS-CoV2 spike protein on their surface. This presentation will direct the T-cells, induced by vaccination to protect us against SARS-CoV2 infection, to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

The spike protein is what SARS-CoV2 uses to infect cells, and is widely used in current COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines cause our cells to produce this protein, allowing the immune system to generate both antibodies and T-cells that recognise SARS-CoV2 and protect us against infection.

“For the past ten years we have been developing viruses in our lab that are trained to recognise and only infect tumour cells. Once infected, the virus then forces infected cells to produce either something that is directly toxic to cancer cells, or produce a protein that signals to the immune system to come and attack the tumour,” said Prof Parker.

“We’re now seeking to investigate whether we can harness anti-spike immunity to treat cancer. Rather than using spike proteins to induce

a response against coronavirus, the idea is that the virus will deliver the spike proteins to the surface of tumour cells.

“Cancer cells arise in us daily, but our immune system recognises and destroys them. When cancer takes hold, it is because the cancer finds ways of hiding from the immune system. By using our virus to infect tumour cells and present spike protein on the surface, our T-cell responses then see this as a virally infected cell and try to get rid of it. The immune response is directed against that spike protein ,which is only on those tumour cells, thus helping the immune system to “see” the cancer as foreign and kill those tumour cells.

“We’ve shown that we can direct an immune response through T-cells to those cells that have been infected by our virus. And that is really powerful, it’s a very promising approach.”

The team’s research is still in its infancy. Preliminary co-culture experiments have been conducted and work will continue throughout 2022.