Study Reveals New Mechanism Used by Cancer Cells to Disarm Attacking Immune Cells

November 20, 2017
Survival Molecule Helps Cancer Cells Hide From the Immune System Dennis Guttridge
  • Immune cells called macrophages are one of the body’s first responders against early cancers.
  • This study found that pancreatic-cancer cells release a factor that disarms attacking macrophages.
  • The findings describe a new mechanism that interferes with immune surveillance and contributes to cancer development.

Columbus, Ohio – A new study by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) identifies a substance released by pancreatic cancer cells that protects them from attack by immune cells called macrophages.

The study found that the substance, called Gdf-15, might be required for the development of early pancreatic tumors. The research also revealed that a molecule pronounced N-F-kappa-B (NF-kB) helps tumor cells produce Gdf-15.

When macrophages take up the Gdf-15, it prevents them making nitric oxide and tumor necrosis factor, two chemicals they release to kill cancer cells. Ironically, the researchers found that NF-kB in macrophages plays an important role in the production of nitric oxide and tumor necrosis factor.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

“This study shows that GDF-15 plays an important role in the development of pancreatic cancer and might be required for the development of early pancreatic tumors,” says principal investigator Denis Guttridge, PhD, professor of Cancer Biology and Genetics at Ohio State and associate director for basic research.

“We believe that this mechanism for disarming macrophages develops early in cancer cells, enabling small tumors to survive and grow,” adds Guttridge, who also is in the OSUCCC – James Molecular Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Program. “These findings support the need for preclinical studies to determine the role of GDF-15 in the development of pancreatic cancer.”

Guttridge and his colleagues conducted the study using pancreatic-cancer cell lines, cells from patient tumors and an animal model. Key findings include:

  • NF-κB is a direct regulator of Gdf-15;
  • GDF-15 suppresses macrophage cell-killing activity by inhibiting the production of nitric oxide and tumor necrosis factor;
  • Both GDF-15 and NF-kB are overexpressed in patients with pancreatic cancer.

“Overall,” Guttridge says, “our results reveal that NF-κB is responsible for the synthesis and secretion of GDF-15 from pancreatic tumor cells, and that GDF-15 then inhibits NF-κB activity in macrophages and blocks them from killing tumor cells.”

Funding from Pelotonia, an annual bicycling event that raises funds for research at the OSUCCC – James, helped support this research.

Other researchers involved in this study were Nivedita M. Ratnam, Jennifer M. Peterson, Erin E. Talbert, Katherine J. Ladner, Priyani V. Rajasekera, Carl R. Schmidt, Mary E. Dillhoff, Benjamin J. Swanson, Ericka Haverick, Raleigh D. Kladney, Terence M. Williams and David J. Wang, The Ohio State University; and

Gustavo W. Leone, now at the University of South Carolina.

About the OSUCCC – James

The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute strives to create a cancer-free world by integrating scientific research with excellence in education and patient-centered care, a strategy that leads to better methods of prevention, detection and treatment. Ohio State is one of only 49 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers and one of only a few centers funded by the NCI to conduct both phase I and phase II clinical trials on novel anticancer drugs sponsored by the NCI. As the cancer program’s 308-bed adult patient-care component, The James is one of the top cancer hospitals in the nation as ranked by U.S. News & World Report and has achieved Magnet designation, the highest honor an organization can receive for quality patient care and professional nursing practice. At 21 floors with more than 1.1 million square feet, The James is a transformational facility that fosters collaboration and integration of cancer research and clinical cancer care.


Media Contact: Amanda Harper, director, Media Relations

Direct: 614-685-5420; central media office: 614-293-3737

Written by: Darrell E. Ward, associate director for Cancer Communications
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