Melissa Meyer, Ph.D.

What if we could target pro-tumoral immune cells while leaving infectious-disease fighting immune cells unharmed?

Neutrophils are the body’s first responders to infection and injury. They move swiftly through the blood to sites of infection to control bacteria and alert the immune system to the presence of invaders. In cancer, the neutrophil response becomes persistent and pathologic, often supporting cancer development. Chemotherapy, the most common type of cancer treatment, often leads to low white counts, or depletion of neutrophils, helping tumor regression but also leaving the patient susceptible to infection. I wonder if there is a way to target pro-tumoral neutrophils to support tumor regression while leaving anti-bacteria neutrophils intact to prevent infection in cancer patients. To target the differences between pro-tumoral and anti-bacterial neutrophils, I first need to understand their molecular differences. I will profile cell surface protein expression and coordinate intracellular signaling pathways by RNA expression in healthy individuals and melanoma patients. Understanding the intracellular signaling pathways will help us distinguish between the “good” antibacterial neutrophils and the “bad” pro-tumoral neutrophils. Not only can we distinguish between pro-tumoral and antibacterial neutrophils, but I will also identify differences in cell surface proteins between these populations. The location of cell surface proteins makes them optimal drug targets. So, once we have determined specific cell surface proteins for each population, we can use those particular proteins to target one population while leaving the other intact. Together, these data will connect specific functions of neutrophils subsets with accessible drug targets present on the surface of neutrophils in cancer patients.

SPARKing Impact: The study will provide new insight into what differentiates infectious disease-fighting immune cells from tumor-promoting immune cells and reveal potential drug targets to eliminate the latter.