Hide and seek

Cancer cells hide inside each other when the immune system attacks.

Tumor cells from mice in which immunotherapy has stopped working, showing the cell membrane in red, a protein called actin in green and the nuclei (where the DNA is contained) in blue. Most of the tumor cells that survived immunotherapy had several nuclei, showing that they contained several cells. Image credit: Amit Gutwillig (CC BY 4.0)

Cancer immunotherapies use the body’s own immune system to fight off cancer. But, despite some remarkable success stories, many patients only see a temporary improvement before the immunotherapy stops being effective and the tumours regrow.

It is unclear why this occurs, but it may have to do with how the immune system attacks cancer cells. Immunotherapies aim to activate a special group of cells known as killer T-cells, which are responsible for the immune response to tumours. These cells can identify cancer cells and inject toxic granules through their membranes, killing them. However, killer T-cells are not always effective. This is because cancer cells are naturally good at avoiding detection, and during treatment, their genes can mutate, giving them new ways to evade the immune system. Interestingly, when scientists analysed the genes of tumour cells before and after immunotherapy, they found that many of the genes that code for proteins recognized by T-cells do not change significantly. This suggests that tumours’ resistance to immune attack may be physical, rather than genetic.

To investigate this hypothesis, Gutwillig et al. developed several mouse tumour models that stop responding to immunotherapy after initial treatment. Examining cells from these tumours revealed that when the immune system attacks, they reorganise by getting inside one another. This allows some cancer cells to hide under many layers of cell membrane. At this point killer T-cells can identify and inject the outer cell with toxic granules, but it cannot reach the cells inside.

This ability of cancer cells to hide within one another relies on them recognising when the immune system is attacking. This happens because the cancer cells can detect certain signals released by the killer T-cells, allowing them to hide. Gutwillig et al. identified some of these signals, and showed that blocking them stopped cancer cells from hiding inside each other, making immunotherapy more effective.

This new explanation for how cancer cells escape the immune system could guide future research and lead to new cancer treatments, or approaches to boost existing treatments. Understanding the process in more detail could allow scientists to prevent it from happening, by revealing which signals to block, and when, for best results.