All cells in a tumor share some genetic similarities, but also have key differences, often hindering effective treatment. To complicate matters, cells are constantly evolving and changing, often just enough to evade cancer treatments. These cellular changes (known as cell plasticity) lead to the development of treatment-resistant cells that replicate and expand, causing tumors to regrow after treatment.
A new technology developed by a research team at the University of Texas, Austin, is designed to “tag” DNA, which may help track how a tumor cell changes over time and provide more detailed insights about cancer cell growth.
The technology, called ClonMapper, uses nucleic acid tagging that isn’t actually new technology, just used differently. Researchers noted that ClonMapper provides more holistic information about how a cell evolves, allowing researchers to closely monitor which cells continue to clone and replicate after treatment (and why). Specifically, ClonMapper is able to look backwards in time, allowing researchers to get a better look at what a cell looked like before it became resistant and enabling them to track the cell’s genetic changes.
ClonMapper is a lineage-tracing system, which “integrates DNA barcoding with single-cell RNA sequencing and clonal isolation to comprehensively characterize thousands of clones within heterogeneous populations.” Lineage-tracing techniques are not new, nor are they specific to just oncology; they have been used to study the growth of cellular populations in a range of conditions, such as diseases in the digestive system.
In the study published in Nature Cancer, researchers collected malignant cells from patients with chronic lymphocytic lymphoma (CLL). CLL is a cancer that is commonly managed for quite a while before treatment is initiated due to the way CLL cancer cells change. Findings revealed that ClonMapper provides a clearer picture of how cells in a tumor grow on a genetic level, potentially enabling doctors to employ treatments with a much higher degree of specificity and overcome treatment-resistant cell growth.
With new funding from the National Cancer Institute, the research team intends to employ ClonMapper to the study of cell populations in other types of cancer, helping find treatment options that can better respond to the way cancer cells grow.