Unshackling the Immune System « Charlie Teo Foundation

Unshackling the Immune System

Researcher name: A/Prof Peter Fecci
Institution: Duke University, U.S.
Grant name: More Data Grant
Grant amount: Up to $477K
Grant years: 2021-2023

Meet the Researcher

A/Prof Peter Fecci is a neurosurgeon, scholar and brain cancer researcher. He has trained at the Ivy League research University, Cornell University, and prestigious Duke University (U.S.). His research centres around brain tumour immunology, immunotherapy and T-cell dysfunction in glioblastoma. He was one of the first to identify T-cell dysfunction in brain cancer.

After decades of failure, scientists finally found effective ways of turning the immune system against cancers, with spectacular results – except for brain cancer. Immunotherapies have continued to fail in brain cancer and the team have discovered that the T-cells are stuck in the bone marrow of brain cancer patients. This project may unlock the reason why immunotherapy has failed in brain cancer and lead to immunotherapy treatments finally being effective.


If the team’s theory is correct, this work will finally allow for the development of effective immunotherapies for patients with brain cancer.

Development of Beta-arrestin 2 small molecule inhibitors for brain cancer therapy

Cancers of the intracranial (IC) compartment carry unique therapeutic challenges and offer grim outcomes, regardless of tissue type. These cancers include primary malignancies, such as universally lethal glioblastoma (GBM), as well as far more common brain metastases. Our group unveiled the ability of IC tumours to cause a dramatic plunge in the number of circulating T-cells, the main cells that help drive the body’s defences against cancer. Immunotherapy is a novel modality of cancer therapy that has gained momentum in recent years, which works by harnessing and ramping up the body’s own immune system, especially T-cells (the immune system’s effector arm) to fight cancer. However, without T-cells, there is nothing for immunotherapy to act upon. Our group tracked the missing T-cells in patients with IC cancers and discovered them ‘trapped’ in the bone marrow. We showed that this phenomenon is accompanied by loss of sphingosine 1-phosphate receptor 1 (S1P1) from the T-cell surface. S1P1 is a molecule which would normally act as an ‘exit visa’ allowing T-cells to exit from the bone marrow. Without surface S1P1, T-cells instead are locked in, unable to circulate out of the marrow. To solve this problem, our group demonstrated that mice lacking Beta-arrestin 2 (βARR2), an adaptor protein responsible for S1P1 internalisation, do not experience sequestration, and their T-cells are instead able to travel to the brain, and, with the help of immunotherapy, fight their cancers. Our studies in mouse models provided the proof of concept that blocking βARR2 and preventing loss of S1P1 could promote T-cells travelling to the brain to produce anti-tumour responses. However, we’ve now found that inhibiting βARR2 does far more to combat cancer, and we’re finding unprecedented responses against many types of cancer when we knock out βARR2. We think we’ve uncovered an entirely novel cancer therapeutic, and we’ve partnered with a Nobel Laureate who is an expert in this molecule to help develop a pharmacological strategy to block βARR2. We hope that our continued work will allow for the development of more effective immunotherapies for patients with brain cancer.