Two men in lab coats facing the camera and smiling.
Lead study author Michael P. Plebanek, PhD, and senior study author Brent A. Hanks, MD, PhD. (Photo by Eamon Queeney.)

How Cancer Tumors Hijack the Body’s Defense System


In the May 10, 2024, issue of the journal Science Immunology, researchers unveiled a previously unknown tactic used by cancer tumors to dodge the body’s immune system.

The analysis by cancer researchers at Duke University School of Medicine and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a step forward in understanding why some cancers do not respond to immunotherapy.

They discovered that a specific type of cell that usually rallies to help the body fight foreign invaders can suddenly operate differently, and instead allow cancer to grow unchecked. Using mouse models, the team found dendritic cells can be successfully manipulated to prevent their rogue transformation.

“By disrupting the mechanisms that enable tumors to evade immune detection, we aim to expand the cancer patient population who can benefit from immunotherapy,” said senior study author and medical oncologist at Duke Cancer Institute Brent A. Hanks, MD, PhD, who has appointments in the Department of Medicine and Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke.

What causes the dendritic cells to shift roles starts with a strategy employed by tumors. Cancer tumors produce high levels of lactate that can reprogram healthy dendritic cells into what scientists termed “mregDCs.”

Unlike their healthy counterparts, mregDCs act as traitors, suppressing the body’s immune response, making it harder for the body to attack cancer cells.

“Probably the most surprising finding was that mregDCs aren’t just poor stimulators of T cells needed for an immune response, but they are also capable of blocking other conventional cells from doing their job of initiating an immune response,” said lead study author Michael P. Plebanek, PhD, a postdoctoral associate and cancer immunologist at Duke School of Medicine.

Authors note that tumors likely employ a variety of strategies to evade immune detection. But the discovery could lead to a new approach for targeted cancer therapies. 

Lead study author: Michael P. Plebanek, PhD

Senior study author: Brent A. Hanks, MD, PhD

Additional authors include Yue Xue, PhD; Y-Van Nguyen; Nicholas C. DeVito, MD; and Balamayooran Theivanth, PhD, of the Duke Department of Medicine Division of Medical Oncology; Georgia Beasley, MD, in the Duke Department of Surgery; and Alisha Holtzhausen, PhD, of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine.