Thomas Spies, molecular immunologist

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Thomas Spies, molecular immunologist

Understanding how cancer outwits the immune system

If cancer had a personality, craftiness and persistence might top its list of character traits.

After all, without cancer's consistent ability to block our body's natural defenses, far fewer people would likely fall victim each year.

Why do tumor cells so often fly under the immune system's radar detection?

That's one major question that captivates molecular immunologist Dr. Thomas Spies and his longtime colleague Dr. Veronika Groh in their Hutchinson Center laboratory. Their research findings so far bear potentially vital applications for treating a range of solid tumor cancers, including those of the breast, prostate, ovary, kidney and gastrointestinal organs.

Shortly before joining the Hutchinson Center faculty in 1994, Spies and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston were the first to identify a unique class of proteins called MIC. These molecules are not found in healthy cells but are expressed by diseased cells, including certain cancer cells, under stressful conditions. In cancer's early stages, MIC proteins serve an important cancer-fighting purpose, flagging tumor cells for destruction by "natural killer" immune cells.

But further studies by Spies and his Hutchinson Center colleagues yielded a surprising observation: Tumor cells can also use those same helpful proteins to fight back.

Specifically, as cancer progresses to later stages, the tumor cells produce massive amounts of MIC proteins that serve to blind the immune system to the cancer's presence, thereby stifling the body's cancer-fighting ability. Think of it as "putting a wet blanket on a fire," Spies said.

As a result, the cancer can continue its growth unchecked. In recent years, Spies and colleagues have continued to expand their understanding of this phenomenon by pinpointing the role of another crucial protein.

These key findings may enable the development of new drugs to fortify a patient's immune system by interfering with the tumor cells' evasive behavior. Such a drug could boost the effectiveness of other immunotherapies—a new treatment approach that harnesses the body's own immune system to halt cancer and other diseases.

"I've been delighted that our early observations in the laboratory have developed into something of outright significance to tumor immunity," Spies said. "We're pleased that our research is contributing to the Center's mission and moving us in the direction of more effective cancer treatments."

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