The battle that naturally occurs between the body’s immune system and cancerous cells is one that scientists have been trying to manipulate for years. Manipulating the immune response to empower immune cells to fight cancer more strongly is a popular therapeutic approach, called immunotherapy. Scientists from a new study investigate a particular aspect of this approach: how cancerous cells fight back to hide from the immune system.
The immune response may not be strong or fast enough on its own to deter cancer growth completely. But what if modern medicine could make it strong enough? This is the goal behind virtually all immunotherapies, although they may differ drastically depending on the specific type of cancer. Oftentimes, immunotherapy includes extracting immune cells from the body, altering them, and returning them to the body. Unfortunately, cancer responds by adapting and countering with their own evasion techniques.
The current study aimed to figure out how cancer evades, focusing on skin cancer. In particular, researchers observed melanoma cells, which look drastically different from their healthy counterparts. Mainly, melanoma cells have different active genes than healthy cells, which then serve as powerful antigens that T cells may recognize.
Researchers looked for the genes that trigger that most powerful and sustained response from the immune system. They used an experimental model consisting of labeling various active melanoma genes used to produce antigens. T cells were then released to target those antigens, and researchers observed cancer cells’ subsequent response. They found that the reaction largely depended individual active cancer genes and their functions.
"When the T cells were directed against genes responsible for melanoma-typical characteristics, we observed that the cancer cells changed their appearance and suppressed these genes over time," explained researcher Dr. Nicole Glodde.
However, cancer genes essential for the tumor’s survival seemed to be less of a candidate for suppression and change, so they emerged with huge potential to induce a strong immune response. Researchers are hopeful that identifying this trend may help them intercept cancer cells before they can avoid the immune response.