Dr Cositha Santhakumar and the team at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland have released preliminary findings for their study into the role of the tumour microenvironment and its implication as a therapeutic target in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

HCC is the most common form of primary liver cancer. Over 300 New Zealanders are diagnosed every year and the disease disproportionately impacts our Māori communities. Currently, immune checkpoint therapy (immunotherapy) is proving less effective as a treatment of HCC when compared with other cancers. This study is investigating the HCC tumour and surrounding tissues to better understand what it is about this microenvironment that may be inhibiting the effectiveness of immunotherapy, and what factors could lead to improved outcomes for HCC patients.

After 16 months of COVID-19 hampered investigations, Dr Santhakumar and the team have shared some initial findings.  Dr Santhakumar says “Our preliminary results show that the majority of immune cells are located just outside the tumour rather than within the tumour. Similarly, the expression of immune checkpoint target, PD-L1, is largely on immune cells instead of liver cancer cells. This may explain why the efficacy of immune checkpoint therapy in liver cancer is suboptimal compared with other cancers”

Dr Santhakumar is hopeful that these preliminary findings will form the basis for a study with a larger number of patients, allowing the team to connect their initial findings with clinical outcomes. She explains that “once we correlate these initial findings with clinical outcomes, we will be better able to understand the immune profile that is associated with improved outcomes and determine which patients are more likely to respond to immune targeted therapies”.

The study is also enhancing our understanding of the HCC tumour microenvironment and its surrounding tissue, enabling us to potentially identify new targets for therapy. Dr Santhakumar explains, “Targeting multiple markers has the potential to increase the efficacy of current therapies, thereby optimising patient care.”