Over the past five years all hopes for combatting cancer have turned to immunotherapy. The IT Targets project is doing its part by targeting GPCR proteins.
On paper immunotherapy is relatively simple: it helps the immune system recognise and eliminate cancer cells. 'Normally, the immune system should recognise cancer cells as foreign organisms and naturally eliminate them’, explains Christophe Quéva, chief scientific officer at iTeos Therapeutics, a biotechnology spin-off of UCL’s Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and de Duve Institute. ‘But cancer cells inhibit this process to the extent of being able to develop without hindrance’.
Cancer: understanding immune system inhibition
Currently, the research objective is essentially to better understand this inhibition mechanism in order to target it therapeutically: How do cancer cells communicate with our immune system? Which of our immune system’s cells are targeted? How to prevent this inhibition? Are the mechanisms the same in all types of cancer and in everyone? Today these questions have only partial answers, even after the first drugs targeting the immune system have reached the market.
Scrutinising tumour samples
To answer them more fully and develop new therapeutic approaches, les IT Targets researchers will scrutinise patient tumour samples. ‘First we’ll isolate the immune cells in these tumours to find out which kind are most often involved in cancer growth’, Dr Quéva says. ‘Then we’ll apply next generation sequencing on the most important immune cells to identify the genes they express.’
Concentrating on GPCR proteins
After these first two steps are taken, researchers will concentrate on a very specific type of immune cell protein:GPCR. ‘These proteins are known for their crucial role in signal transmission during certain physiological processes. They’re already therapeutic targets for numerous indications, but not in the cancer context. However, we know they’re involved in the regulating immunity. They play a role in the migration and function of immune cells, which is why we decided to focus on them.’
This work, among the first of its kind, has only just begun. ‘Our initial goal is to list the most important GPCR proteins in the immune cells that interest us, then to study their role more closely, and finally to assess their potential as a therapeutic target.’
The ultimate goal: new drugs
While the IT Targets project is initially focused on fundamental research, the plan is for this research to lead to a medical application. Indeed, the project is calling on several groups of experts specialised in every step to the implementation of a treatment. ‘More specifically,’ Dr Quéva concludes, ‘the project combines IRIBHM expertise in GPCR protein discovery and validation, ChemCom technology concerning sensory GPCR proteins, de Duve Institute tumour immunology knowledge, ImmunXperts understanding of human immune primary cells and iTeos immuno-oncology drug research.’
A glance at Christophe Quéva's bio
1993 Doctorate in Life and Health Sciences, Institut Pasteur de Lille and Université de Lille (France)
1993-1998 Postdoctoral internship, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle, USA)
1998-2001 Deputy Director, AstraZeneca Transgenics and Comparative Genomics (Molndal, Sweden)
2001-2006 Deputy Director, AstraZeneca Oncology (Boston, USA)
2006-2011 Research Director, Amgen, Oncology-Hematology Therapeutic Area (Seattle, USA)
2012-2015 Director, Biology, Translational Medicine, Oncology and Inflammation Gilead Sciences (Seattle, USA)
Since 2015 Chief Scientific Officer, iTeos Therapeutics (Gosselies, Belgium)