Increasing the capacity of the immune system to kill cancer cells

Increasing the capacity of the immune system to kill cancer cells

Université de Montréal immunologist and cancer specialist André Veillette and his team at the IRCM unveil a promising approach using molecules found on macrophages.


Awakening the immune system’s instinct for destroying cancer, using two molecules located on the surface of macrophages: that’s the promising avenue opening up from recent laboratory work of Dr. André Veillette. Director of the Molecular Oncology Research Unit of the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Université de Montréal, Dr. Veillette recently published his findings in the journal Cell Reports.

These advanced therapies largely target cells of the immune system called T cells or T lymphocytes, whose role is to defend the body against harmful foreign agents such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, on the one hand, but also against cancer cells.

Among these "guardians of the body" are also macrophages, cells whose central role is to eliminate harmful agents by simply devouring them. There is a growing interest, among scientists and pharmaceutical companies, in targeting macrophages for therapeutic purposes.

In their lab, Dr. Veillette's team discovered that macrophages are particularly good at destroying certain types of cancer cells. Even more, the team was able to greatly stimulate the appetite of these immune cells. In particular, they uncovered two molecules located on the surface of macrophages (CD11a and CD11c) which can be activated to increase their instinct to destroy cancer cells.

In animal models and in human cell cultures in the lab, the stimulated macrophages turn into super-eaters of cancer cells.

“The ability to unleash the destructive power of macrophages is an important discovery that paves the way to some really exciting new possibilities in personalized medicine,” said Zhenghai Tang, co-first author of the study with Dominique Davidson.

In fact, added Davidson, “we help the body to protect itself better.”

This new use of the molecules to help the body cope better with cancer is an outgrowth of ongoing work in Dr. Veillette’s lab. He and his team have been studying the mechanisms that govern the functioning of the immune system for the past 30 years. In 2017, in a work published in the journal Nature, the team shed light on the SLAMF7 molecule, which also acts on the destructive capacity of macrophages.

“The more we know about the functioning of the immune system, the more we will be able to find effective and less toxic therapeutic solutions to fight diseases,” said Veillette. “Immune cells like macrophages are gaining a lot of interest in immunology research today, but also in the pharmaceutical industry, because this is truly the future of medicine for many deadly diseases.”

He added: “For our part, the next step will be to establish to what extent the molecules CD11a and CD11c can be used as biomarkers to identify patients who are most likely to respond to this type of therapy.”

Read the full study



This study was made possible in large part thanks to financial support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Cole Foundation and the Canada Research Chair in Signalling in the Immune System at UdeM.


About André Veillette

André Veillette is a world-renowned researcher in immunology. A physician and researcher, he is a Full Research Professor in the Department of Medicine at Université de Montréal and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University. He has more than 158 publications to his credit, which have received nearly 20,000 citations in several prestigious scientific journals, including Nature, Cell, Immunity and Nature Immunology. A member of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Society of Immunology, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and others, Dr. Veillette holds the Canada Research Chair in Signalling in the Immune System. In 2020, he joined the Canadian government's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force and during the pandemic became one of Quebec’s leading figures in the popularization of science.

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