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Using the immune system to destroy breast cancer cells

Dr. Sheila Drover, Associate Professor of Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University in St. John, NL, specializes in cancer immunity: finding new ways to help the body recognize and destroy its own cancer cells.

Through her work, Dr. Drover has found that the survival rate for certain types of breast cancer is often higher in tumour cells where specific proteins, called HLA molecules, are detected on the surface of the cell. Some HLA molecules contain little pieces of the tumour protein, called peptides. It’s these peptides that send a message to the immune system to attack the cancerous cells. With funding from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Atlantic Region, Dr. Drover hopes her current research may help to identify new treatment options for different types of breast cancers.

“By helping patients use their own immune systems against cancerous cells, we may be looking at a future of treating breast cancer with a combination of immune-therapy and chemotherapy,” said Drover.

About the Grant

The goal of this study is to identify, at the molecular level, which factors affect expression of HLA-II on breast tumours. Dr. Drover and her team will use cell lines that represent the different breast cancer subtypes. Through this study, they hope to gain a better understanding of how the immune system responds to different types of breast cancer. It is expected that expression of HLA-II markers on tumour cells will be useful for stratifying patients for different treatment options. 


 Pictured, Dr. Drover’s team from left to right:

  • Kendra Smith, a Bsc Honour's student, investigating whether breast cancer therapies alter the expression of HLA and other immune markers on cancer cells.

  • Dr. Sheila Drover

  • Andrea Rasmussen, a graduate student, investigating the molecular regulation of immune markers in triple negative breast cancer cells

  • Louisa Wiede, an international exchange student (Biotechnology) University of Mannheim, Germany, investigating mechanisms by which HLA is down regulated in HER2+ breast cancer cells.