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Research Highlight | June 03, 2019

Spatial organization of immune cells within tumour microenvironment tied to survival of lung cancer patients

For years, scientists studying the role the immune system plays in fighting cancer have been baffled as to why some patients exhibit better immune responses than others during cancer treatment. Now, a new study by a group of researchers partly funded by the TFRI is starting to shed light on this question by showing how the spatial organization of immune cells within the tumour microenvironment affects the survival of patients with lung cancer.

The study, published in the Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, relied on a new made-in-Canada imaging technology platform called Hyperspectral Cell Sociology to map the tumour microenvironment in lung cancer samples. This groundbreaking technology allowed the team to see that when tumour cells were closely surrounded by CD8+ T cells (the immune cells that kill tumour cells), patients did much better long-term.

“The main concept we wanted to demonstrate in this study is that the spatial organization of immune and tumour cells has a clinical impact,” says Dr. Katey Enfield, the paper’s co-first author who completed her PhD at BC Cancer.

In addition to mapping immune cells within the tumour microenvironment the team was also able to conclude that the proximity of CD8+ T cells to a tumour was more important than the sheer number of immune cells in the sample when it came to recurrence-free survival rates.

“In other words, it’s not just how many immune cells there are, it’s where they are and how they are organized that is important in terms of how well that patient’s immune system is fighting that tumour,” Dr. Enfield explained.

The team is now looking forward to continuing using the Hyperspectral Cell Sociology imaging platform developed by Drs. Calum MacAulay and Martial Guillaud (BC Cancer) to determine if spatial organization plays an important role in the efficacy of immunotherapies, which could help determine which patients would benefit more from this exciting new form of cancer therapy, opening the door to creating more personalized treatments for cancer.

“Now that we have this tool up and running, we can carry on analysing these spatial relationships in larger studies,” said Dr. Enfield. “We hope that this will push even more people in the field to start incorporating spatial information into cancer immunotherapy studies to help determine if a patient should get immunotherapy or be put on a different treatment course.”



Hyperspectral cell sociology reveals spatial tumor-immune cell interactions associated with lung cancer recurrence


Katey S. S. Enfield, Spencer D. Martin, Erin A. Marshall, Sonia H. Y. Kung, Paul Gallagher, Katy Milne3, Zhaoyang Chen, Brad H. Nelson, Stephen Lam, John C. English, Calum E. MacAulay, Wan L. Lam and Martial Guillaud