Researchers have developed a new technique to pinpoint immune cells in cancer patients that are reactive against their disease. This research could lead to more targeted immune-based therapies for cancer patients.

Immunotherapy is a relatively new field of cancer treatment which works by promoting the patient’s immune system to fight against the cancer. Although immune cells are present within tumours, they sometimes struggle to recognise the cancerous cells. This is because tumour cells can evolve to express receptors found on normal body cells, which prevents a successful immune response against the tumour.

A selection of immune cells will be able to recognise the tumour cells. However, the immune cells capable of fighting the cancer are usually in the minority and have a limited effect. The new RAGE-seq technique enables these cells to be quickly and easily identified.

The RNA that codes for the immune cell receptors was enriched from the immune cells and analysed computationally to determine the genetic sequence of the receptors. Known as RAGE-seq, this technique allows the receptors on thousands of immune cells within the tumour to be scanned at once. Therefore, the immune cells with receptors that can recognise the cancer cells can be easily identified. As RAGE-seq works similarly to a barcode it has been described as a ‘genomic barcode’ by researchers.

The RAGE-seq method has the potential to inform more personalised cancer treatments. By identifying the receptors that can recognise the tumour cells, the patient can be given the most effective drug for their cancer. There is also the potential for an immune cell infusion, as the effective immune cells can be isolated from the patient, expanded and re-introduced to the body. In the future, the technique could also inform genetic-based treatments.

The researchers plan to use the RAGE-seq technique to understand why some patients do not respond well to immunotherapy treatment. It is hoped the technique will soon go into clinical trials.