Dr Clare Slaney and her team are exploring using COVID-19 immunity to treat breast cancer.
They are working on ways to improve chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T therapy, a type of immunotherapy, with funding support from the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
While CAR T therapy has shown great promise in some blood cancers, to date, it has not proved to be as effective for solid tumours like breast cancer. The opportunity that this research presents is identifying a mechanism capable of generating CAR T cells using COVID-19 viral specific T cells that already exist in most people after the pandemic.
As most of the world now have COVID-19 specific ‘memory T cells’ through exposure to the SARS-COV2 virus or through vaccination, this presents a new opportunity to engineer these immune cells to recognise and fight breast cancers.
Dr Slaney and her team from Peter Mac/University of Melbourne will collect COVID-19 memory T cells from people who have been infected and/or been vaccinated against COVID-19. By re-engineering these cells to recognise specific breast cancer surface proteins, these T cells could be used to fight breast cancers. Because these T cells already recognise the COVID-19 virus spike protein, they can be activated by a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The initial idea came to me as I was sitting at home frustrated in the early stages of the pandemic, unable to access my lab, watching my colleagues in infectious diseases working so hard to fight the SARS-COV2 virus. I suddenly thought can we leverage this virus to do something useful," Dr Slaney said.
"When the COVID-19 vaccines emerged, I had the idea that we just might be able to use COVID-19 immunity and vaccines to fight breast cancer. The early indications have been extremely promising, and I am so grateful that NBCF is supporting novel research like mine.”