Immune cells research could lead to personalised cancer treatments  

Cancer cells

Immune B cells could be used to develop cancer targeting immunotherapies, following new research by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. 

The scientists discovered the role of immune B cells which makes them successful at targeting tumours, including when cancer has metastasised. The teams developed a computational tool to identify B cells and hope that this could help develop improved, personalised immunotherapies.  

The research  

Research published in Nature Immunology show how biopsies from patients with breast cancer were taken, before the scientists used called B cell receptor sequencing to identify genetic variations in the B cells. 

B cells are similar to T cell in that they work as part of the immune system to help fight infections as well as cancer. They produce antibodies which then bind to harmful substances like viruses and cancer, and recruit other parts of the immune system to destroy them. 

The research studied the B cells of people with advanced breast cancer who had died, after their cancer had spread to other parts of the body. They also studied a group of patients with early breast cancer, over time as they were treated with chemotherapy. 

When a receptor on the B cell identifies a cancer cell and binds to it, the B cell undergoes changes and diversifies to be even more effective at targeting those cancer cells. 

The teams discovered that some B cells which had diversified their genetic sequence were present at multiple metastatic tumour sites, where the cancer had spread to. This means that, after recognising cancer in one area of the body, B cells migrate to hunt down cancer at different sites around the body. B cells which were only found in one tumour site were less likely to have diversified and did not perform effective cancer surveillance. 

It was also found that B cells which were consistently present in patients’ treatment had recognised cancer and had changed their genetic sequence to become more effective at identifying cancer. 

This information helped form the computational tool that could predict which B cells were most likely to successfully detect and target cancer cells. Using this tool, the team hopes that patients’ most successful anti-cancer B cells can be found to develop a personalised immunotherapy treatment.  

Expert comments 

Dr Stephen-John Sammut, first author on the study and Leader of the Cancer Dynamics Group at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Once cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it’s often much more difficult to treat. Our research has revealed that the immune response to cancer isn’t limited to the site where a tumour initially appears – if an immune B cell is successful at detecting cancer in one part of the body, it will search for similar cancer cells elsewhere in the body. 

“Currently there are very few immunotherapies that can be used to treat breast cancer. The computational tool we have developed will allow us to zoom in and identify the B cells that have recognised cancer cells, as well as the antibodies they are producing. This will allow us to develop anticancer antibody treatments similar to the ones the B cells produce, which can then be given as a personalised treatment to boost the immune system’s response against breast cancer that has spread.” 

Associate Professor Rachael Bashford-Rogers, lead author on the study and Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry at The University of Oxford, added: 

“Using a combination of different genetic methods, we showed that both B cell and T cell immune responses appear to co-evolve with the changes that occur in individual tumour sites within the body. However, some B cell responses were seen across many or all tumour sites, suggesting that they are seeking out cancer cells at different sites. Here we identified a common and predictable pattern of immune cell surveillance between multiple tumour sites and developed a tool to accurately identify these cells. We show that this is also generalisable to other disease settings including in autoimmunity, and so this work lays a foundation for prioritising specific antibody treatments in cancer and beyond.” 

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