Biologists discover how cancer cells elude the immune system

Researchers at Cornell University used a scanning angular interference

microscopy (SAIM), to measure nanoscalemembrane barrier surrounding cancer cells. Based on the analysis, the scientists managed to create immune cells capable of passing through the protective barrier.

One of the ways in which cellsTumors hide from the body's immune system by forming a thin surface barrier called the glycocalyx. Cancer cells often form a glycocalyx with high levels of mucins on their surface, which are thought to help protect cancer cells from attacks by immune cells.

The researchers created a cellular model forprecise control of mucin expression on the surface to mimic the glycocalyx of a cancer cell. Using microscopy and genetic editing, they studied how the surface density, glycosylation and cross-linking of cancer-associated mucins affect barrier thickness at the nanoscale. They also analyzed how the thickness of the glycocalyx affects the resistance of cells to attacks by immune cells.

We found that changes in barrier thickness as small as 10 nm can affect the antitumor activity of host immune cells or engineered cells used for immunotherapy.

Sangwu Park, study co-author

An illustration of the effect of normal (left) and modified (right) immune cells on a cancer cell. Image: Sangwoo Park, Cornell University

To reduce the thickness of the protective barrier,researchers have designed immune cells with special enzymes on their surface that allow them to attach to and interact with the glycocalyx. Experiments carried out on cultures in vitro have shown that such immune cells are able to overcome the glycocalyx defense of cancer cells.

The authors of the study believe that this methodincrease the effectiveness of cellular cancer immunotherapy. With this treatment, doctors take immune cells from a patient and modify them to seek out and destroy cancer. The ability to modify cells to overcome the glycocalyx needs to be tested in laboratory and clinical trials.

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