Cancer cells express mutated proteins that are distinct from the proteins in non-cancerous cells, known as “tumor-specific antigens.” Over a century ago, scientists reasoned that our immune system (T cells) should be able to recognize these mutated proteins as “foreign” and eliminate cancer cells. While we find tumor-specific T cells within tumors, these T cells are not functional, allowing cancers to grow unimpeded. Our goal is to understand why tumor-specific T cells are dysfunctional and develop strategies to reprogram these tumor-specific T cells to fight cancer.
Using genetic cancer mouse models, we found that during tumor development, tumor-specific T cells become dysfunctional because the genes and pathways needed for normal T cell function are dysregulated. All cells in our body, including T cells, contain two layers of information encoding each cell’s characteristics. The first layer is the genome and consists of the DNA nucleotide sequence, the second layer is the epigenome and consists of chemical modifications to DNA or to the scaffold proteins associated with DNA. The genome and the epigenome together determine a T cell’s properties. Because functional and non-functional T cells in our model have identical genomes, tumor-induced loss of function must result from epigenomic changes. We propose to define the epigenome modifications that render tumor-specific T cells non-functional and test strategies to reverse this “code of dysfunction” so that we can reprogram tumor-specific T cells for human cancer therapy.