An immune protein stops ovarian cancer growth, study suggests

16 Aug 2023

Image: © Chinnapong/

The pre-clinical models suggest a certain protein is able to directly kill tumour cells and tell other immune cells to prevent the cancer from spreading around the body.

A new study suggests a certain protein in our immune system is able to stop the spread of ovarian cancer cells.

The research looked at high-grade serous ovarian carcinoma, a particularly dangerous and complex form of ovarian cancer.

It is believed to be the most common form of ovarian cancer, but it also has a low survival rate. Patients are usually not diagnosed until later stages, when the disease has metastasised – spread to other parts of the body. Roughly 400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in Ireland.

To find preventions and cures for this form of cancer, a research team co-led by Trinity College Dublin researcher Dr Nollaig Bourke looked at ‘interferon epsilon’, a type of protein found in the immune system.

Interferons are immune signalling proteins that can kill tumour cells and activate anti-tumour immune responses. Bourke said women with high grade serous ovarian cancer no longer had the “normal expression” of this particular immune protein in their reproductive tract.

“This was really interesting to us as we knew that interferon epsilon was part of a family of proteins known for their anti-tumour activities and we wondered what would happen if we could try restore this lost expression,” Bourke said. “Could giving interferon epsilon help block the growth of ovarian cancer cells and therefore prevent the growth of primary and secondary tumours?”

In the pre-clinical models in this new study, Bourke claims that this immune protein was able to directly kill tumour cells and also instructed other immune cells to target the cancer cells involved in metastasis, “thus blocking the development of secondary tumours”.

The study involved Trinity alumni Dr Nicole Campbell and Dr Niamh Mangan, along with researchers in the Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. Campbell is the study’s joint first author and has been working for years on understanding how treatments targeting the immune system can help fight cancer.

“Cancer immunotherapies have been very successful in the treatment of other types of cancer, but they have had limited success in ovarian cancer we’re looking to change that,” Campbell said.

Prof Paul Hertzog of the Hudson Institute of Medical Research said interferon epsilon is naturally made in cells that line organs such as the female reproductive tract.

“Our recent discovery is that it also acts as a tumour suppressant, and that it is lost during the process of ovarian tumour formation,” Hertzog said. “We know from pre-clinical models that administering it will dramatically inhibit ovarian cancer growth, particularly in cases where the cancer has metastasised into the peritoneal cavity.”

The team said they now aim to better understand how this protein works to protect against ovarian cancer and move closer to “first-in-human” clinical trials. The goal is to use interferon epsilon to make a new immunotherapy for ovarian cancer.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic