Cancer's inner workings

Cancer's inner workings

Illuminate newsletter index page, March 2020
March 2020

Dr Charis Teh
Dr Charis Teh (pictured) and Associate Professor Daniel Gray
were part of an international team investigating how mass
cytometry could help to identify better treatment combinations
for individual patients.

A joint Institute and Stanford University team has used a revolutionary new technology to uncover the inner workings of individual cancer cells.

By studying the blood cancer myeloma using new technology called mass cytometry, or CyTOF, researchers were able to understand why some cells were not killed by standard anti-cancer drugs.

CyTOF simultaneously analyses the levels of up to 40 different proteins in millions of individual blood cancer cells, revealing how the cancer cells responded to different anti-cancer medicines, suggesting new effective treatment combinations for people with cancer.

The research team hopes that the new technique could be integrated into clinical trials, both to understand why some patients are resistant to anti-cancer therapies, and to predict suitable ‘biomarkers’ for matching patients with the most effective therapies for their disease.

The study was led by Institute researchers Dr Charis Teh and Associate Professor Daniel Gray, in collaboration with Professor Garry Nolan and Dr Melissa Ko from Stanford University, US.

Discovering cancer vulnerabilities

Until recently almost all studies of cancers looked at cancer cells grouped together, missing any potential differences between individual cells, said Dr Teh.

“The system we developed simultaneously and precisely measures 26 separate proteins in a blood cancer cell line derived from myeloma – an incurable cancer of immune B cells,” Dr Teh said.

“We used machine learning to analyse data from thousands of myeloma cells, and were able to distinguish features of cells surviving treatment with standard medicines for treating myeloma – and see how they differed from cells that were sensitive to these medicines,” she said.

The technology may even have a role in providing real-time, detailed analysis of patient samples from clinical trials, Associate Professor Gray said.

The panel of markers developed in this study gives researchers considerable scope to understand how cancer cells are responding to anti-cancer therapies – and as we found, it can even help to identify drug combinations that are more effective at killing myeloma,” he said.

“Adding mass cytometry to the analysis of clinical studies could reveal why some patients respond to therapies differently from others, and how resistance to anti-cancer medicines can develop in a small fraction of cancer cells.”

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