Big data reveals genetic drivers of immune response to cancer

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Scientists at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) have identified over 100 new genetic regions that affect the immune response to cancer. The findings could inform the development of future immunotherapies – genetic treatments that enhance the immune system’s ability to kill tumours.

The study, published in Cancer Immunology Research, analysed a large public genomic database and found 122 potential immune response drivers. Mutations in these genetic regions correlate with the presence or absence of immune cells infiltrating the tumours.

Lead author Eduard Porta-Pardo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at SBP, explained: “While several of these correspond to proteins with known roles in immune response, many others offer new directions for cancer immunology research, which could point to new targets for immunotherapy.”

Immunotherapy has been shown to treat even advanced cases that have spread to other organs. Several drugs in this class are now widely used and have been shown to dramatically shrink tumours or eradicate them, as well as preventing recurrence.

It is hoped that this study will lead to new understanding of how the immune system can be harnessed to kill cancer cells. “To develop immunotherapies that are relevant to a wide range of cancers, we need to know a lot more about how the power of the immune system interacts with tumours,” said Adam Godzik, Ph.D., professor and director of the Bioinformatics and Structural Biology Program and senior author of the study. “Our study provides many new leads for this endeavour.”

“This work emphasises the value of open data,” he added. “Because we could access genomic data from over 5000 tumour samples from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), we could jump straight to analysis without having to set up a big collaborative network to gather and sequence so many samples.”