DNA barcoding reveals cancer cells ability to evade the immune system

Some cancer cells can deploy parallel mechanisms to evade the immune system’s defences as well as resist immunotherapy treatment, according to a new study from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

By suppressing the action of killer T-cells and hindering the ability of the immune system to flag tumour cells for destruction, breast cancer cells are able to replicate and metastasise, the researchers found.

“We know that breast cancer typically doesn’t respond well to immunotherapy, and we wondered if there’s an intrinsic mechanism enabling breast cancer cells to escape the immune system,” says first author Ms Louise Baldwin, who is a PhD student in Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick’s lab at Garvan.

The researchers used a technique called DNA barcoding, which tags cells with a known sequence and tracks the progression of tumour cells through time.

“We showed that there are rare cancer cells capable of escaping the immune system and escaping treatment with immunotherapy,” Ms Baldwin says.

The mechanisms could be used as potential targets for therapies, to stop tumorous cells from adapting and spreading. Another future application could be in prognosis, where a high number of cells could indicate which patients might not respond to immunotherapy.

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