Detailed maps of the immune cells that surround tumours could suggest fresh therapeutic targets, point out biological markers that can be used to select the patients most likely to respond to a given therapy, and offer insights into the best time to start administering that treatment, according to two studies released on 4 May.
The papers, published in Cell, reflect a growing appreciation by cancer researchers that a tumour’s response to treatment is often guided by the cells in its neighbourhood — particularly the immune cells that amass at its borders and invade its core.
“These papers are really important,” says Nick Haining, an immunologist and oncologist at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. “They put a flag in the ground, saying: here’s the technology that makes it possible, and there’s way more stuff here to learn than you would have thought.”
Both studies are too small to change cancer treatment on their own. Ultimately, their importance is not in their immediate findings, but in the trend that they could unleash, says Haining.
Haining expects that attitude to spread over the next few years. “We need hundreds of patients across dozens of tumour types, profiled at the level of thousands of immune cells per sample,” he says.
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