A Garvan Institute of Medical Research team in Australia has created a genomic barcode to identify immune cells that recognise and act against cancer from within a patient’s immune system.

Scientists will be able to use the new method, called RAGE-seq, to simultaneously monitor the changes of many immune cells inside tumour tissue. This could provide information on how to better leverage an individual’s immune system against their cancer.

Garvan Institute executive director Chris Goodnow said: “This method gives us the most detailed view yet of how immune cells behave in the human body.

“Immune cells play a critical role in the development of disease. This method shows significant potential to help us personalise cancer treatments to the individual.”

Commonly, only a few immune cells identify cancers, and these rare cells are known to constitute a small portion of all the immune cells existing in a tumour.

With previous techniques, researchers were able to analyse the RNA from a single immune cell.

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In order to facilitate the sorting of numerous immune cells within a tumour at once, the Garvan Institute team combined genomic technologies from Oxford Nanopore Technologies, 10X Genomics, Illumina, and CaptureSeq.

The new integrated method has been designed to ‘scan’ the relevant immune cell receptors in thousands of cells at a single time. This will offer insights into the relationship between immune cells in a tissue sample and cells that may have an effective response against cancer.

When used to assess 7,138 cells from the tumour and related lymph node of a breast cancer patient, the genomic barcode method was able to detect several cells that were present in both tissues.

This data provided information on specific genetic signatures of the immune response in the tumour.

The method is currently being studied in melanoma samples, and the team hopes to expand its application to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.