A research project led by the immunologist Caetano Reis e Sousa, who leads the Francis Crick Institute's Immunobiology Laboratory in London, has won the first edition of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine.
The prize was established by the BIAL Foundation with a value of 300,000 euros and recognises biomedical findings of outstanding importance.
The study that received the award focused on a mechanism that used by cancers to escape detection by the immune system. The work falls within the area of tumour immunology, a field of study which could help lead to potential first-line treatments, including for several metastatic cancers which are resistant to chemotherapy. The research was published in the journal Cell and involved a total of twelve researchers of six different nationalities.
Starting from the fact that only a minority of cancer patients have a complete and lasting response to immunotherapy, the group analysed the causes of therapeutic failure. They identified a possible explanation for the mechanism of tumour escape from the immune system and consequent resistance to immunotherapy: the enzyme cyclooxygenase and one of its main products, the inflammatory lipid prostaglandin E2. They showed that these molecules are essential for some cancer cells to escape recognition and elimination by the immune system. When the team genetically ablated the ability of tumour cells to produce these molecules, they observed a massive immune attack on the tumours, which caused them to reduce in volume until they disappeared.
The team also studied the ability of cyclooxygenase inhibitors, such as aspirin, to increase the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy in pre-clinical models. The results showed a remarkable increase in the efficacy of the treatment when aspirin was combined with immunotherapy, in comparison with single treatments. The combined treatment resulted in the eradication of tumours in the studied models.
The vice-president of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine jury, Maria do Carmo Fonseca, says, "This pioneering work has inspired new clinical trials, currently underway worldwide, in which the combination of anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin with immunotherapy is being tested in several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancers".
Caetano Reis e Sousa adds, "It was with great joy that I received a phone call from the jury announcing that a study from my laboratory had been the winner of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine 2019. Our project involved pre-clinical research on one of the mechanisms used by cancers to escape detection by the immune system. The study was conducted by a team of talented researchers from our laboratory and external collaborators and we are all very excited and honoured to receive this prestigious award. For me, as a Portuguese citizen, to receive the BIAL Award in Biomedicine has special significance. On behalf of all those who participated in the study, I thank the selection panel for choosing our work and the BIAL Foundation which sponsors the award".
Caetano Reis e Sousa was born in Lisbon in 1968 and moved to the UK to finish high school. He graduated from Imperial College of London with a degree in Biology and completed his doctorate in Immunology at Oxford University.
Last year, Caetano Reis e Sousa was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, becoming the first Portuguese scientist in 200 years to be admitted to this British scientific academy, the oldest in the world. In 2009, Caetano Reis e Sousa was awarded the Portuguese Order of Sant'Iago da Espada and received the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2017.