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Checkpoint Inhibitors for Cancer Can Activate TB Infection

Checkpoint Inhibitors for Cancer Can Activate TB Infection

Checkpoint Inhibitors for Cancer Can Activate TB Infection

Checkpoint Inhibitors for Cancer Can Activate TB Infection

Lung damage caused by TB infection. Credit: University of Southampton
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Researchers at the University of Southampton have identified how new checkpoint inhibitor treatments for cancer can activate tuberculosis in some patients.

Immune therapies for cancer are transforming treatment by activating the body’s immune cells to fight off cancer. Immune checkpoints are part of the human body’s immune system that prevent damaging inflammation, and checkpoint inhibitors are drugs used in immunotherapy to permit the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.

Surprisingly, immune activation with checkpoint inhibitors can sometimes lead to rapidly progressive tuberculosis, an infection that used to kill one in three people in the UK.  Researchers in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Southampton described one of the earliest cases of immunotherapy-associated tuberculosis in December 2018 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, and reports of similar cases have progressively accumulated.  However, the true incidence is unknown as progression of cancer and the development of tuberculosis can be similar.

To understand mechanisms underlying this emerging phenomenon, Dr Liku Tezera, a senior research fellow at the University who led the project, used a 3-dimensional cell culture model to measure the effect of checkpoint inhibitors on the immune system’s ability to control the bacteria that causes tuberculosis disease. The team’s findings, reported in the latest edition of eLife, demonstrate that the addition of an immune checkpoint inhibitor, anti-PD1, led to an excessive immune response, which actually increased growth of the bacteria. The involvement of PD-1 in the natural immune response to TB infection in patients was demonstrated with long-term collaborators based at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), in Durban, South Africa.

Reference: Elikington, et al. (2020) Implications of Tuberculosis Reactivation after Immune Checkpoint Inhibition. AJRCCM DOI: https://doi.org/10.1164/rccm.201807-1250LE    

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