U-M Team Sheds New Light on the Role of Regulatory T Cells in Pancreatic Cancer

In mouse models, the work uncovers a new potential target to improve immunotherapy approaches to the deadly disease.

11:00 AM

Author | Ian Demsky

Cancer cell
Image by Stephanie King

A multidisciplinary Michigan Medicine team is shedding new light on the role of regulatory T cells in pancreatic cancer — and, in mouse models, have uncovered a new potential target to improve immunotherapy approaches to the deadly disease.

Regulatory T cells are a subpopulation of immune cells that help keep the immune system from going overboard and running amok, but if the system is tamped down too much it can end up protecting cancer cells from the body's own defenders.

"Our study focused on the role of regulatory T cells during the onset and progression of pancreatic cancer, which is poorly understood," says study co-senior author Filip Bednar, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of Surgery at Michigan Medicine and member of the U-M Rogel Cancer Center. "Contrary to our expectations, we found that depleting the regulatory T cells actually made tumor cells more aggressive and sped up the cancer's progression."

That's because there appear to be several parallel immunosuppression mechanisms at work, and removing one of them via the removal of the regulatory T cells allows for others to take its place and help tumors grow, the team reported in Cancer Discovery.  

The team's findings point toward a particular chemokine receptor that might be additionally targeted to help overcome immunosuppression when treating pancreatic cancer. New treatment approaches are desperately needed, Bednar notes. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, with a five-year survival rate around 9%.

"Our work reveals complex cellular cross-talk between regulatory T cells and fibroblast cells within the pancreatic cancer microenvironment," says study lead author Yaqing Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the lab of senior author Marina Pasca Di Magliano, Ph.D. "It also provides evidence that different fibroblast cells have different, even opposing functions, in the development of pancreatic cancer."

More online: Check out a "tweetorial" on the paper published by the Bednar lab.

Paper cited: "Regulatory T cell depletion alters the tumor microenvironment and accelerates pancreatic carcinogenesis," Cancer Discovery. DOI: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-19-0958

More Articles About: Lab Notes Basic Science and Laboratory Research Pancreatic cancer Cancer Research All Research Topics
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories purple cells floating up close
Health Lab
Study links gene network and pancreatic beta cell defects to type 2 diabetes
Teams from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of Michigan design a comprehensive study that integrates multiple analytic approaches that has linked a regulatory gene network and functional defects in insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells to type 2 diabetes.
smart watch on wrist
Health Lab
Clinical smart watch finds success at identifying atrial fibrillation
A Michigan Medicine research team developed a prescription wristwatch that continuously monitors the wearer’s heart rhythm and uses a unique algorithm to detect atrial fibrillation. The clinical-grade device, called the Verily Study Watch, proved very accurate at identifying atrial fibrillation in participants.
sketched out bacteria in a dish yellow and blue colors of U-M
Health Lab
This gross mixture has big benefits for the study of bacteria
Michigan Medicine researchers have found that growing bacteria on agar mixed with organs is an efficient and effective way to study infectious pathogens.
green blue map of michigan
Health Lab
How does exposure to ‘forever chemicals’ impact your cancer risk
Pearce, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and co-lead of Rogel’s cancer control and population sciences program, reflects on the project and why bringing this study to Michigan is so critical.
supar molecule teal blue yellow red
Health Lab
Immune protein suPAR links viral infection as possible cause of kidney disease
Through a series of experiments in non-human primates, mice and humans, a multi-institutional team led by researchers from Michigan Medicine and Rush University found that the immune protein soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor, or suPAR, is an important link between viral infections and proteinuria; the elevation of protein in the urine is known to cause glomerulopathy, a common form of kidney disease.
person holding walker with nurse next to them closer up on hands lower body
Health Lab
Long COVID happens in nursing homes, too
Post-acute sequelae of Sars-COV2 (PASC, long COVID) caused a decrease in independence and cognitive ability after coronavirus infection in nursing home residents