The fight against lung cancer

lungenkrebs / Abbildung: S. Reppert

Cellular image of the lung in a cancer model for lung cancer (adenocarcinoma). On the left is an example of an untreated lung with a high proportion of tumour cells. On the right is an example of a lung after anti-interleukin-17A antibody treatment. This treated lung shows reduced indication of lung cancer. (Image: I. Boross)

Erlangen research scientists develop new treatment approach

Although more likely to affect smokers, lung cancer can also strike non-smokers and is in fact the most common form of cancer in the world, and a disease which almost always costs a person their life. Although methods of treatment have improved over the years, around 40,000 people die of the illness in Germany alone per annum. Research scientists from the Molecular Pneumology Department at Erlangen University Hospital’s Clinic for Anaesthesiology are currently pursuing a new approach in the fight against lung cancer. They have discovered a way of blocking the messenger substance believed to be chiefly responsible for tumour growth. Moreover, tests carried out on a model resulted in significantly increased survival rates. These findings were recently published in the renowned journal Nature Communications (

“The starting point for our research was based on the hypothesis that the lung cancer survival rate is so low because, inter alia, science has not yet sufficiently understood the immune system’s central reactions to tumours within the body”, says Prof. Dr. Susetta Finotto, head of the Molecular Pneumology Department and the research project.

It is for this reason that her team has attempted to piece together the puzzle that is the lung’s immune system – and to great success. Post graduate student Sarah Reppert and Dr. Ildiko Boross, who completed her doctorate in the same working group, were able to identify a key messenger substance that promotes tumour growth in the lung.

“The messenger substance is referred to as interleukin-17A”, explains Boross. “This messenger substance can also be found in the immune system of healthy people. However, through my research on the cancer model and patients with lung cancer, I discovered that significantly higher levels of interleukin-17A are produced in lung cancer sufferers than in healthy people.” T-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, are responsible for the production of interleukin-17A. These lymphocytes are then in turn regulated by a protein known as T-bet. If the body’s levels of this protein are too low, a fatal chain reaction occurs and the T-bet protein is no longer able to control the lymphocytes. As a result, the lymphocytes produce more and more interleukin-17A which in turn promotes the growth of cancer tumours.

“This is where our treatment method comes into play”, says Sarah Reppert. Together with the research team under the leadership of Prof. Finotto, she introduced antibodies that block interleukin-17A. In tests on cancer models blocking the messenger substance inhibited tumour growth, resulting in a greater chance of survival. What’s interesting about this method is that the research scientists applied the antibodies using drops through the nose and not – as is often the case with similar treatment methods – by injecting directly into the bloodstream. Prof. Finotto and her team hope their findings will help them discover new immunological therapeutic approaches for the treatment of lung cancer patients. “This would allow antibodies to be used against interleukin-17A in the flight against lung cancer”, says Prof. Finotto.

Alongside researchers from Erlangen University Hospital, researchers from Universität Mainz and Université de Lausanne in Switzerland also took part in the project.

Further information for the media:

Prof. Dr. Susetta Finotto
Tel.: 09131/85-70214

uni | media service | research No. 60/2011 on 22.12.2011

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