The many faces of cancer therapy

Mesenchymal stem cells make a type of immunotherapy less effective in treating cancer.

Human mesenchymal stem cells present a spread pattern of attachment after being prepared on a glass surface. Image credit: VCU Libraries (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer. For example, chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) therapy is used to target several types of blood cancer. It works by reprogramming patients’ immune cells to target specific tumor cells. In blood cancers, CAR-T therapy works very well, but it can cause extreme responses from the patient’s immune system, which can be life threatening. In solid tumors, CAR-T therapy is much less successful because the tumors secrete molecules into the space surrounding them, which weaken the immune processes that attack cancerous cells.

Stem cells are the master cells of the body. Originating in the bone marrow, they can repair and regenerate the body’s cells. Cancer stem cells play a role in resistance to CAR-T therapy, due – in part – to their ability to renew themselves, but the role of another type of stem cell, called mesenchymal stem cells, was less clear. Mesenchymal stem cells develop into tissues that line organs and blood vessels. Although it is known that mesenchymal stem cells are present in most cancers and play a role in shaping and influencing the space around tumors, their impact on CAR-T therapy has not been studied in depth.

To find out more, Zhang et al. looked at the influence of a protein, called staniocalcin-1 (STC1), on CAR-T therapy, by studying cells grown in the laboratory and human tumor cells that had been implanted in mice.

Zhang et al. found that mesenchymal stem cells reduce the ability of CAR-T therapy to destroy cancer cells and that they needed STC1 to do this successfully. They also increased the expression of molecules that dampen the immune system, and suppressed molecules called inflammasomes, which are an important part of the way the immune system detects disease. Moreover, reducing the amount of STC1 that mesenchymal stem cells expressed restored the effectivity of CAR-T therapy.

This study increases our understanding of the way that mesenchymal stem cells affect CAR-T therapy. It has the potential to open up a new way of improving the efficiency of this treatment and of reducing the harmful side effects that it can cause.