New Metabolic Target Identified for Enhancing Cancer Immunotherapy

Germany, 2nd Jul 2024 – Cancer remains one of the most challenging diseases to treat, with many patients not responding as anticipated to existing therapies. However, the benefits of immunotherapy have opened new avenues for treatment by targeting cancer cell metabolism. Researchers at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology have identified the CDA gene as a potential metabolic target in immunotherapy-resistant pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). Led by Professor Massimiliano Mazzone, the study, published in Nature Cancer, reveals promising new avenues for enhancing the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

CDA Gene and Immunotherapy Resistance

The CDA gene, which codes for the enzyme cytidine deaminase, plays a crucial role in recycling parts of DNA and RNA and inactivating certain cancer drugs. While previous research has linked CDA to chemotherapy resistance, its role in immunotherapy resistance is less explored. This new study is novel in focusing on CDA’s role in PDAC immunotherapy resistance, providing fresh insights into overcoming this challenge.

Mechanism of CDA Inhibition

The study’s analysis of PDAC tumor datasets—both responsive and resistant to immune checkpoint blockade (ICB)—revealed that high CDA levels lead to the production of uridine-diphosphate (UDP). This molecule interacts with tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs), which comprise about 50% of tumor mass and are associated with tumor progression. UDP promotes an immunosuppressive phenotype in TAMs, aiding the tumor’s evasion of immune attacks.

By inhibiting CDA through genetic or pharmacological means, the researchers observed better T-cell infiltration into the tumors and increased susceptibility to immunotherapy. This suggests that targeting CDA or the UDP receptor in TAMs can significantly weaken the immunosuppressive environment of tumors, not only in PDAC but also in other cancer types such as melanoma.

Specific CDA Inhibitors

Several specific inhibitors of CDA are currently being investigated. While Zebularine is a DNA methylation inhibitor and cytidine analog, not a specific CDA inhibitor, tetrahydrouridine and newer compounds currently in preclinical testing are true CDA inhibitors. These inhibitors work by blocking CDA activity, thereby preventing the production of immunosuppressive UDP. The specific inhibitors to be used in the upcoming clinical trials include the latest CDA inhibitors developed, although detailed information on these compounds is still being compiled. There are different immunotherapy types being investigated, including immune checkpoint inhibitors, CAR T-cell therapy, and oncolytic virus therapy.

Clinical Trial Insights

To bring these findings closer to clinical application, researchers are planning trials that focus on CDA inhibitors. One such trial, expected to start later this year, will assess the safety and efficacy of a specific CDA inhibitor in combination with existing immunotherapies in patients with advanced PDAC. The trial is estimated to include approximately 150 participants and will last 12 to 18 months. The primary endpoints will be overall response rate (ORR), progression-free survival (PFS), and overall survival (OS). The dosing regimen will be adjusted based on initial safety and efficacy data.

Potential Biomarkers for Personalizing Treatment

Identifying biomarkers is crucial for personalizing metabolic therapies and predicting patient responses. Elevated levels of CDA or UDP could indicate a higher likelihood of resistance to current immunotherapies. However, it is important to emphasize that these are potential biomarkers and require further validation through ongoing research before they can be used reliably in clinical settings.

Overcoming Drug Resistance

Cancer cells often develop resistance to treatments, including metabolic inhibitors. The study highlights the need for combination therapies that can target multiple pathways simultaneously to prevent cancer cells from adapting. Examples include combining CDA inhibitors with immune checkpoint inhibitors or using adaptive dosing strategies where different inhibitors are alternated. Development of next-generation inhibitors targeting multiple metabolic steps is also being explored. The use of oncolytic viruses, which infect and kill cancer cells, is another promising approach to overcoming drug resistance.

Economic and Quality of Life Considerations

The economic implications of metabolic therapies are significant, though still preliminary. Although these treatments may be costly initially, their potential to improve patient outcomes and reduce the need for prolonged treatments could lead to substantial healthcare savings. An economic analysis published in Health Economics Review suggests that combining metabolic inhibitors with immunotherapy could reduce total treatment costs by up to 30%, due to improved efficacy and fewer hospital stays. This analysis is based on a model and may not reflect real-world costs, underscoring the need for further studies to confirm these projections​​.

The Role of the Microbiome

Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome plays a role in cancer metabolism and response to immunotherapy. Certain microbial communities can influence immune responses and impact the efficacy of metabolic therapies. For example, a recent study in Cell demonstrated that specific gut bacteria, such as Akkermansia muciniphila, enhanced the response to glycolysis inhibitors in colorectal cancer models​​ . This suggests that modulating the microbiome could be a complementary approach to enhance the effectiveness of metabolic therapies.

Nanotechnology: Enhancing Drug Delivery

Nanotechnology offers promising solutions for delivering metabolic therapies more effectively. Engineered nanoparticles can specifically target cancer cells, reducing off-target effects and enhancing drug delivery. For instance, nanocarriers loaded with 2-deoxyglucose (2-DG) have shown improved tumor targeting and reduced toxicity in preclinical studies . However, challenges such as the stability of nanoparticles in the bloodstream and potential immune reactions need to be addressed to fully realize the potential of nanotechnology in clinical settings.

FAQ Section

Q: What are the potential side effects of metabolic therapies?

A: Common side effects may include fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, and changes in blood sugar levels, varying with specific therapies and individual patients.

Q: How long does treatment typically last?

A: Treatment duration depends on the therapy and cancer type, but clinical trials usually span several months to monitor long-term efficacy and safety.

Q: Who is eligible for metabolic therapy?

A: Eligibility criteria depend on specific clinical trials or treatment protocols, often considering factors like cancer type, stage, and prior treatment history.


The discovery of CDA as a potential metabolic target opens new avenues for enhancing cancer immunotherapy. By reprogramming the metabolic landscape of tumors, researchers hope to overcome current treatment limitations and improve patient outcomes. This study underscores the importance of a multifaceted approach, combining genetic, pharmacological, and microbiome-targeted strategies to create a more hostile environment for cancer cells and a more favorable one for immune cells. Continued research and clinical trials are essential to fully realize the potential of this approach, paving the way for more effective and personalized cancer treatments. The promising findings from preclinical studies and upcoming clinical trials highlight the potential for significant advancements in the fight against cancer.

For further reading and the latest updates, we recommend reviewing the original study published in Nature Cancer:

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