Award-winning immunology research shows how cancer surgery paralyzes part of the immune system

January 11, 2019

Dr. Rebecca AuerSurgery is very effective in removing solid cancers, but it also suppresses the immune system in a way that makes it easier for remaining cancer cells to survive and spread. New research led by Dr. Rebecca Auer shows that surgery paralyzes immune cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells in a way that was not previously appreciated. While other studies have focused on the ability of NK cells to directly kill cancer cells, Dr. Auer and her team looked at their ability to release a molecule called interferon gamma, which can indirectly help kill cancer cells. Using blood samples from 42 colorectal cancer patients, they found that surgery reduced NK cells’ ability to produce interferon gamma by at least 83 per cent, and the effect lasted more than a month. This study received the best paper award at the American Society of Surgical Oncology meeting and was published in Annals of Surgical Oncology. Dr. Auer’s research on NK cells has also inspired three clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital that could to help prevent cancer from spreading after surgery.

“This study provides a new understanding of how surgery suppresses the immune system in people with cancer,” said Dr. Rebecca Auer, surgical oncologist and head of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “We’re now leading three clinical trials, which could help prevent cancer from coming back after surgery.”

Authors: Angka L, Martel AB, Kilgour M, Jeong A, Sadiq M, de Souza CT, Baker L, Kennedy MA, Kekre N, Auer RC.

Funding: This research is possible because of generous donations to cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. This study was also supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Cancer Research Society and The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, with in-kind support from ATGen.

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