Beyond skin supplements: Collagen could be the next target for cancer therapies

Collagen supplements may be a regular fixture on the shelves of your local vitamin shop, but researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center have suggested that this most abundant protein in the body may have a new use: to fight cancer.

Type I collagen is produced by cells called fibroblasts and is mostly found in connective tissue in the tendons, as well as bones and skin. Hence its debated role as a supplement for skin and joint health.

But new findings by a team at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, published July 21 in the journal Cancer Cell, have shed light on the role of a different version of collagen that is produced by cancer cells to protect them from the body’s immune response.

One big difference between the two forms of collagen is in their extracellular structure. The more common version produced by fibroblasts consists of two α1 chains and one α2 chain, while collagen from pancreatic cancer cells is made up of three α1 chains. This is because cancer cells have silenced the gene for α2, the researchers concluded.

“Cancer cells make an atypical collagen to create their own protective extracellular matrix that helps their proliferation and their ability to survive and repel T cells,” the study’s senior author, Raghu Kalluri, M.D., Ph.D., said in a statement. “Uncovering and understanding this unique adaptation can help us target more specific treatments to combat these effects.”

The team put this theory into practice by studying mice with pancreatic cancer that had the α1 gene deleted from these cancer cells. This reduced the spread of the cancer and reprogrammed the bacterial makeup of their tumor. This meant there was an increase in the number of T cells, as well as a reduction in the number of myeloid-derived suppressor cells, which otherwise work to reduce the body’s anti-cancer immune response.

The result was a more effective immune system in the mice, which were therefore better able to fight off the cancer. “Uncovering and understanding this unique adaptation can help us target more specific treatments to combat these effects,” Kalluri said in a statement.

What’s more, these same mice responded better to anti-PD1 immunotherapy. This opens up the possibility that targeting cancer-specific collagen could boost the immune response needed to fight cancer in humans.

“No other cell in the normal human body makes this unique collagen, so it offers tremendous potential for the development of highly specific therapies that may improve patient responses to treatment,” Kalluri said.

And while the study looked specifically at pancreatic cancer, Kalluri noted in his conclusion that collagen is also seen in other cancer types, including of the lung and colon, opening the door to a potential wider range of therapeutic applications.