Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the functional unit in the cells. They perform most of the cell’s functions. When there is a shortage of an amino acid called tryptophan, normal cells pause their production of new proteins. But tumor cells behave differently, Pataskar discovered. “Tumor cells continue to produce proteins," he explains. "They just use different building blocks, opting for the amino acid phenylalanine instead of tryptophan." These formerly unknown proteins are now called ‘substitutants’. The discovery of this mechanism might make it easier to detect tumor cells in immune therapies.
Current immunotherapies use T cells that can recognize certain genetic mutations in tumor cells. The only problem is that not all tumors have the right mutations. Patients with these tumors often don’t benefit from immunotherapy as much.
Pataskar believes that his findings could lead to more effective immunotherapies using T cells that are able to detect and destroy tumor cells with peptides from ‘substitutant’ proteins. “These substitutant proteins built from phenylalanine instead of tryptophan can be found in most tissues where cancer occurs. If we can develop a type of immunotherapy in which T cells recognize this property, we will probably be able to treat more people successfully.
He is very glad to receive the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek award. "It’s a great boost for our research. I hope that we will be able to treat the first patients with a type of immunotherapy resulting from my research in only a few years."
Pataskar emphasizes that his curiosity about science didn’t always result in awards and prosperity. When he was little he once stole a bottle of hydrochloric acid from the chemistry lab at school, a substance that reacts strongly to marble. "I wanted to see the reaction for myself, so I poured it all over the marble in our bathroom. I burned a big hole in it."
That got him into quite a bit of trouble with his parents. "It was obviously very dangerous. I could have easily burned my hand or foot with hydrochloric acid. It was a stupid thing to do, but it is a good example of my curiosity about the way biological processes work. In a way, that curiosity also helped me win this award.”