The Immune System Strikes Back « Charlie Teo Foundation

The Immune System Strikes Back

April 2021

By Linda Music, Volunteer Health Writer for the Charlie Teo Foundation

It’s not exactly what you’d expect a 10-year-old to be doing on her school holidays: watching experiments involving blood, learning about chemistry and peering over a microscope examining cells. But that’s exactly what cancer researcher, Seray Adams, often found herself doing at that age.

“My mum was a chemist and she often took me to work where she’d teach me about chemistry. I’d watch her do experiments with blood and I’d help with distillation and preparing chemicals,” says Seray.

“My aunty worked in biogenetics and I was fortunate that she also took me to work where I became fascinated with looking at cells through a microscope.”

Experiencing the world of science propelled Seray into a science career, and as a Charlie Teo Foundation More Data Grant recipient, she investigated how disruptions to the immune system potentially contribute to brain cancer growth.

“The activity of certain metabolic pathways in cancer prevents the immune system from maintaining control of the cancer growth. One such metabolic pathway which helps the cancer from being detected by the immune system is tryptophan metabolism, also known as the kynurenine pathway. Our research project aimed to understand how this pathway disrupts the immune system and how it potentially contributes to brain cancer growth.”

Seray explains that the role of this pathway in potentially promoting brain cancer growth could help to identify new treatment strategies for treating brain cancer.

The first part of the project involved targeting enzymes which are downstream in the pathway. Their results found that targeting one such enzyme, Kynurenine 3-monooxygenase (KMO), significantly reduced the growth of brain cancer cells.

“We used brain cancer cells derived from brain cancer patients and targeted the KMO enzyme together with the delivery of the chemotherapy drug temozolomide (TMZ). We found this combination more powerful in reducing brain cancer growth than just targeting KMO by itself.”

Pictured: Dr Seray Adams working in the laboratory

The second part of the research has been to analyse brain cancer tissue samples to determine if the specific proteins in the kynurenine pathway can be used as biomarkers to help provide a more accurate diagnosis of brain cancer types.

“No one has investigated lower segments of the pathway before. We wanted to determine the clinical relevance of the proteins in the lower segment of the kynurenine pathway in glioblastoma. So far, we’ve characterised seven clinical enzymes from the lower segment,” Seray explains.

“So, the main goal of this part of the project is to identify tryptophan metabolism products as biomarkers that can be used as clinically useful tools to complement the more traditional diagnostic markers currently used. This could potentially improve prognostic and diagnostic accuracy. In addition, the research aims to predict the potential for tumour recurrence and its possible progression to a more aggressive tumour type.”

Seray’s research into brain cancer started seven years ago and would have ceased had she not received the More Data grant from the Charlie Teo Foundation.

“Without the support of the Charlie Teo Foundation we would not have been able to continue investigating our project as we had no other source of funding to keep it going. This funding was critical in helping us to achieve our research goals in our kynurenine pathway project. Our research is yielding important insights into understanding how this pathway disrupts the immune system and contributes to brain cancer aggressiveness. We have obtained some promising results that could identify a new immunotherapeutic treatment strategy for rare cancers.”

Seray is passionate about her work and is determined to continue to help brain cancer patients.

“Although there has been great progress in significantly improving patient survival of many other types of cancer, brain cancer survival rates are extremely low and have barely changed in the last 35 years representing one of the most challenging cancers to treat. This is what motivates me, the challenge and opportunity to use research to uncover cancer vulnerabilities and help make improvements in patient survival and potentially find a cure.”

“Any discovery I make in the laboratory, no matter how small, makes me feel I am one step closer to unravelling how brain cancer works. It’s the small but incremental progress we make as researchers that motivates me in the fight against brain cancer.”

Read more about this research project.