Grants - V Scholar Grants - Tennessee - 2018

Mary Philip, M.D., Ph.D.

Primary liver cancer is a leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Liver cancers are resistant to many cancer drugs. Our immune system has enormous power to find and destroy infectious microorganisms in our bodies, and scientists reasoned that immune cells such as T cells could also find and destroy cancer cells. Using a mouse model of liver cancer, we found that T cells could recognize cancer cells in the liver, however the T cells failed to kill the cancer cells. We discovered that interactions between liver cancer cells and T cells quickly restructured T cells’ DNA. DNA is the program that controls how cells respond and function.  The DNA restructuring in T cells took away the T cells’ ability to kill cancer cells. Our goal is to understand how the interaction between liver cancer cells and T cells makes T cells dysfunctional. We are working to develop a three-dimensional liver cancer model in cell culture dishes. We can add T cells to precisely study the earliest changes in T cells after they encounter a liver cancer cell. This will give us clues about why the T cells are shut down their anti-tumor function. We will then test DNA targeting strategies to see if they prevent T cells from becoming dysfunctional. Ultimately, these genetic targeting strategies can be used to activate T cell responses against cancer cells in patients with liver cancer.