GRANTS. Anna Martner, who heads a research team at Sahlgrenska Cancer Center, has now received the Swedish Cancer Society’s Senior Investigator Award. The grant funds her salary full time for a six-year period. This makes her the fifth researcher from the University of Gothenburg to receive this position. Her team currently is preparing a clinical study that might contribute to better treatment for cancer of the pancreas.
“It’s fantastic that the Cancer Society wants to support me in this way,” says Anna Martner, an associate professor of immunology at the Institute of Biomedicine.
The body’s defenses against cancer
Martner received her PhD 10 years ago when she defended her thesis on infection immunology. She subsequently served as a postdoctoral researcher in tumor immunology at Sahlgrenska Cancer Center. A grant from the Swedish Research Council gave her the chance to complete a second postdoctoral period at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, where she worked with myeloid-derived suppressor cells in circulation, or MDSC. This type of cell increases in number in nearly all cancers, preventing the body’s immune system from fighting cancer cells.
Martner continued to study MDSC when she came back to Gothenburg in 2012, and she gained the opportunity to establish her own research group thanks to grants from the Swedish Research Council, Swedish Society for Medical Research, Swedish Cancer Society and the Hasselblad Foundation. Since then two doctoral students have defended their theses under Martner’s supervision, and her team currently consists of two postdoctoral researchers and three doctoral students.
“The research has gone quite smoothly. We focus on tumor immunology with a clear translational approach. A large part of our work deals with NOX2, the oxygen radical producing enzyme, which is expressed by MDSC and by blood cancer cells in myeloid leukemia. Our work is based largely on analysis of immune functions in samples from cancer patients, but we also conduct studies of immunomodulating substances, such as NOX2 inhibitors, in mouse models for leukemia and solid cancers.”
Cancer pharmaceutical developed through research in Gothenburg
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a severe form of blood cancer, and although the initial treatment with chemotherapy often works well, the disease commonly returns. Researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy have developed Ceplene, a pharmaceutical currently approved in Europe that is used to prevent relapse in patients with AML.
Ceplene prevents myeloid cells from producing oxygen radicals. This is believed to facilitate the body’s immune response against leukemia cells, but the mechanisms are not fully understood. As part of its work, Anna Martner’s team is trying to gain a better understanding of how the drug works.
“Ceplene inhibits NOX2, and if we can understand how this reduces the risk of relapse in leukemia, it may lead to development of more effective treatment. Such knowledge can also help to identify which patients benefit most from treatment,” says Martner.
Possible treatment of pancreatic cancer
In another project Martner is investigating the fact that NOX2 and oxygen radicals seem to play a role in the harmful inflammation that occurs when cancer is surgically removed from the pancreas.
“We have used a mouse model to try to recreate the inflammation resulting from major surgery,” says Martner.
In the mice they have found an increase in the number of activated NOX2-positive cells that produce lots of oxygen radicals and inhibit immune cells, and the researchers have noted a simultaneous increase in the propensity for metastasis in mice. In this animal model Ceplene effectively counteracts inflammation and metastasis.
“We want to examine whether treatment with Ceplene can reduce the risk of metastases in pancreatic cancer,” Martner comments, emphasizing that the project so far is only in its infancy.
“We need a better treatment for cancer of the pancreas, and we have prepared an ethics application for a clinical trial together with surgeons at Sahlgrenska University Hospital,” says Martner.
Visiting research fellow at MIT
Martner plans to take a sabbatical for a few months in the autumn as a visiting research fellow on Robert Weinberg’s team at MIT in Boston. Professor Weinberg studies what gives cancer stem cells their unique properties and what mechanisms cause cancer cells to metastasize.
“In recent years Robert Weinberg has studied how inflammation affects metastasis, and I would like to learn more about that,” says Martner.
She adds, “It will be exciting and instructive to be able to work with one of the world’s best-known cancer researchers.”
TEXT AND PHOTO: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN