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Where cancer cells hide from the immune system

Prof. Dr. Falk Nimmerjahn from the Division of Genetics at FAU. (Image: FAU/Gerog Pöhlein)

FAU researchers have discovered that tumour cells can hide from antibody therapy in bone marrow. Scientists from the Division of Genetics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in collaboration with Universitätsklinikum Erlangen have made a breakthrough discovery in cancer research. For the first time, scientists have been able to simulate the complexity of the human immune system and investigate where cancer cells hide when attacked by the immune system. This research is especially relevant for destroying cancer cells through antibody therapy and shows ways that cancer treatment can be improved today. The researchers recently published their findings in the renowned journal Cell Reports.*

Antibodies that are manufactured specifically to fight cancer cells are an essential part of treating breast cancer and lymphoma. They can detect and mark cancer cells in the body so that the malfunctioning cells can be destroyed by the immune system. However, some cells may survive attacks by the immune system. In the worst case, this can cause tumours to return. ‘A key question in cancer therapy is to find out where tumour cells can hide from the immune system,’ states Prof. Dr. Falk Nimmerjahn from the Division of Genetics at FAU. ‘If we know the answer to this, we can improve current drugs to target where the malformed cells are hiding’.

Two research teams, one from FAU and the other from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge) (Pallasch et al. Cell), have independently made important breakthroughs in this area. Both research teams were able to show that the effects of antibodies used in human cancer therapy are weakened if tumour cells are found in bone marrow. ‘This gives us a unique opportunity to find out how we can improve the antibodies currently used in cancer treatment to remove all tumour cells so that there is actually a chance of curing patients,’ says Dr. Anja Lux, research team leader, Division of Genetics, FAU. The significance of these findings is demonstrated by the ability of both research teams to simulate the complexity of the human immune system in their experiments which indicates that the results can be applied to humans with a greater probability.

Further preliminary investigations at MIT lead researchers to believe that a combination of chemotherapy and antibody therapy can lead to greater success in destroying cancer cells in bone marrow. This is an interesting preliminary result which the researchers in Erlangen are intending to take a step further. ‘Now that we know where the cancer cells are hiding, we can improve antibody therapy to better activate immune cells in the bone marrow,’ explains Prof. Nimmerjahn. This will help to avoid the harmful side effects of chemotherapy, reduce risk for patients and increase chances of curing patients.


*Lux et al., Cell Reports 7, 1-13, 2014; doi:

Pallasch et al., Cell 156, 590-602, 2014

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Falk Nimmerjahn


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