Resistance to liver cancer treatment discovered by UH Cancer Center researchers

October 30, 2023

Liver cancer is the fourth deadliest cancer in Hawaiʻi, particularly affecting Native Hawaiian, Filipino, and Japanese men. Patients can develop liver failure when tumors metastasize or spread to the healthy portions of the liver which results in a rapid decline of health and even death. Image of a human liver, highlighted in red

Currently, immunotherapy is the standard of care for patients with liver cancer. However, while newer immunotherapy medications, which uses a person's immune system to fight cancer, can slow the spread of many types of cancers, liver tumors often do not respond to this treatment. University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center researcher Benjamin Green, MD, led a team to conduct public impact research to better understand why this happens and published the results of the study.

“Sometimes, immunotherapy can cause the generation of pro-cancer immune cells called regulatory T cells or “Tregs”,” Green explained.

Using cutting-edge sequencing technology, Green and his team performed comprehensive analysis of liver Tregs in mice that received immunotherapy. They discovered that the Tregs in the liver that expressed a CD29 protein were more immunosuppressive, and increased in abundance when mice were treated with immunotherapy.

Regardless of the type of cancer that was placed into a mouse's liver, immunotherapy nearly doubled the quantity of CD29+ Tregs. Although the CD29 protein is understudied in Tregs, it likely has an impact controlling the Treg population in the liver.

“Our results may be applicable to a range of liver diseases. In liver cancer, we think that CD29 may represent a new potential drug target to help patients respond to immunotherapy,” said Green. “We will determine whether these Tregs can be killed to improve immunotherapy of liver cancer.”

Investigating liver cancer in local patients

Green received a pilot project grant from Ola HAWAII (a UH minority health research center) to continue this work, which he started at the National Institutes of Health. He is partnering with data scientists and molecular pathologists at the UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine, as well as liver cancer doctors at The Queen's Medical Center, to examine liver tumors removed from Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian patients to see if they contain different percentages of CD29+ Tregs.

“I am grateful to the UH Cancer Center and the patients in Hawaiʻi who have enabled me to continue this important research,” he said. “Working together, I believe that we will contribute to designing more effective medications for future patients suffering from liver cancers.”