Maria Inês Matias, Ph.D.

What if we could convert pro-tumor cells into tumor-fighting cells?

Anti-tumor immunotherapies represent a promising approach for cancer treatment. These therapies are based on using the patient’s own immune cells, equipping them with superior anti-tumor properties, expanding them in the laboratory and re-injecting them back into the patient. Despite the impressive successes that cancer immunotherapies have had, these approaches have also been met with disappointing roadblocks. One major obstacle is the recruitment and accumulation of suppressive cells that are favored in the metabolic environment of the tumor and which strongly inhibit the protective function of anti-tumor killer cells. In my previous research I have shown that it is possible to change the function of a cell by manipulating its nutrients and metabolites. Moreover, my host laboratory has demonstrated that these suppressive cells can be converted into protective killer cells. Together these advanced findings fueled the “spark” that led to my hypothesis that it should be possible to turn suppressor cells into potent killer cells by manipulating nutrients. Instead of blocking the anti-tumor immune response, these cells would greatly promote the efficacy of the immune system to eliminate the tumor and prevent the spread of the cancer cells. Therefore, I propose to test my hypothesis and design a strategy to convert blocking suppressive cells into anti-tumor killer cells by manipulating nutrients or the pathways they activate in the cell. My ultimate goal is to overcome a major roadblock in the fight against cancers, by designing a strategy that will take advantage of the tumor-seeking suppressor cells and turn them into potent killer cells that instead of obstructing and suppressing the anti-tumor response, greatly enhance the efficacy and success of protective immunity and medical interventions.

SPARK funding will make it possible for me to embark on this pioneering study and generate compelling data not only to prove my initial hypothesis but also to fuel my research career goals to fully develop this innovative concept into most successful immunotherapies that effectively cure and even prevent all cancers.

SPARKing Impact: Successfully transforming T cells that obstruct cancer immunotherapies into T cells that have a tumor-killing function would remove a major roadblock in the fight against cancer.