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Research Highlight | December 14, 2023

New findings reveal novel biomarker can predict success of immunotherapy

One of the key obstacles to treating cancer is finding the most effective treatment for each patient while reducing harm to the rest of the body. Immunotherapies, which use our own immune system to fight cancer, have shown promising results in this area.

However, doctors still need more information to overcome a key clinical challenge of identifying whose cancer will respond to immunotherapy.

“We need to expand the repertoire of biomarker tests we have available to predict matching of immunotherapy treatments to our cancer patients, to identify patient populations that may benefit from these therapies but are not identified using the current clinically approved biomarkers,” says Dr. George Zogopoulos, associate professor of surgery and oncology at McGill University and a surgeon at the McGill University Health Centre.

With funding from The Terry Fox Research Institute, a team of Montreal-based researchers discovered a way to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs)—a newer form of immunotherapy that’s shown remarkable improvements in the survival outcomes of several cancers.

“This work shows that a novel biomarker can predict response to ICIs across cancer types,” says first author of the study Joan Miguel Romero, an MD-PhD candidate at McGill University. “These findings suggest that there are cancer patients who are currently not treated with immunotherapy that may benefit from ICI treatments.”

The team, led by Dr. Zogopoulos, looked at what’s called a c-Score—or chemokine-score—that involves four particular genes: CCL4, CCL5, CXCL9 and CXCL10. They found that patients with tumours displaying a higher c-Score show increased signs of T cell inflammation and activation, which is necessary for ICI treatments to be effective. The team found that the c-Score is complementary to the other biomarkers currently used to predict ICI treatment response and patient selection for ICI therapies.

“As the accessibility to tumour profiling platforms expands, including through the pan-Canadian Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network initiatives, novel biomarkers such as the c-Score will be more readily incorporated into immunotherapy clinical trials to further evaluate these novel biomarkers and accelerate their transition into routine clinical practice,” says Dr. Zogopoulos.

“With more complete biomarker tests to identify cancer patients for immunotherapy, we will be able to improve the lives of even more cancer patients using ICIs to treat their cancers,” says Romero.

This study was funded by a Terry Fox Translational Research Program in Enhanced pancreatic cancer profiling for individualized care (EPPIC).