Researchers find link between immune cells’ closest neighbors and survival time in patients with pancreatic cancer

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine have discovered that the organization of different types of immune cells within pancreatic tumors is associated with how well patients with pancreatic cancer respond to treatment and how long they survive. The new findings, published Sept. 16 in Cancer Research, could eventually lead to new ways of treating pancreatic cancer, which has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers.

“Mapping the location of certain immune cells associated with a tumor could be a new biomarker to predict patient survival,” says Aleksander Popel, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Systems Biology Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and member of the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. “We hope that our results will not only lead to a better fundamental understanding of cancer, but also the potential to provide prognostic guidance to clinicians treating pancreatic cancer.”

In 2022, the National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 62,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and nearly 50,000 will die from the disease. On average, only about 10% of people with pancreatic cancer will survive for five years. Predicting which patients are most likely to respond to the few existing treatments is difficult; researchers have long been searching for more tools — cells, molecules or genes — that stratify pancreatic cancer patients by survival.

In recent years, scientists studying many types of cancer have discovered the importance of the noncancerous cells, molecules and blood vessels surrounding tumors — called the tumor microenvironment. Part of this tumor microenvironment is immune cells; some have the ability to target a tumor for destruction while others help the tumor evade the immune system.

In previous research on pancreatic cancer, researchers tallied up how many immune cells are present in the tumor microenvironment and found no association with patient outcomes, but Popel and Johns Hopkins graduate student Haoyang Mi hypothesized that the physical arrangement of immune cells might be more important than the total number.

In the new study, Popel, Mi and collaborators at Oregon Health & Science University used a method called multiplexed immunohistochemistry to pinpoint the locations of 27 different immune molecules in surgically resected tumors from 45 people with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma — the most common form of pancreatic cancer. The patients were 52% women, a median of 63.5 years old, and had all stages of cancer, with 41% of participants’ cancer spread to at least four lymph nodes.

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