The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there are around 650,000 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy in the U.S. annually. Chemotherapy drugs lower the body’s white blood cell count and block cell growth and replication, which halts cancer cells from growing. Chemotherapy patients, however, become more prone to infections and illnesses with a lowered immune system. So, the obvious next step in chemotherapy drugs would be to create some that make the immune system fight the cancer cells as well. A new study published in Cell describes a class of experimental drugs that are being put through clinical trials, which aim to do just that.

UK researchers found that a protein normally involved in healthy cell growth and its spread, called Focal Adhesion Kinase (FAK), tends to be overproduced in tumors, thus helping cancer cells to avoid detection by the immune system. An effect of this is that rather than the immune system working to seek out and destroy cancer cells, it actively protects them. In their research, the team found that the experimental drug acts as a FAK inhibitor, preventing the protein from camouflaging the cancer cells, and allowing the immune system to do its job and destroy them.

The research was tested on mice with squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. But the researchers believe the drugs would work on other forms of cancer as well. "FAK is hijacked by cancer cells to protect them from the immune system," lead author Dr. Alan Serrels said in a press release. "This exciting research reveals that by blocking FAK, we've now found a promising new way to help the immune system recognize the cancer and fight it."

He went on to state that since the drug is already in the early stages of clinical trials, it has the potential to be an excellent sidekick to existing immunotherapy treatments. "Because it works within tumor cells rather than influencing the immune cells directly," he said, "it could offer a way to reduce the side effects of treatments that harness the power of the immune system against cancer."

Another recent study looking to improve immunotherapy found that adding aspirin to the treatment could lead to better outcomes. Using COX inhibitors, a group of chemicals that aspirin falls under, researchers were able to help stop the production of prostaglandin E2 , which is produced by skin, breast, and bowel cancer cells. These same inhibitors triggered the immune system into action and got it to fight the cancer cells.

Source: Serrels, A, et al. Nuclear FAK controls chemokine transcription, Tregs and evasion of anti-tumor immunity. Cell. 2015.