Advanced Screening Technology May Enhance Cancer Immunotherapy

Screening evaluates a large number of cells used in cancer therapy.

Screening evaluates a large number of cells used in cancer therapy.

Researchers recently created a new method for screening cells used in immunotherapy cancer treatments.

The method, called TIMING (Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy in Nanowell Grids), is able to more accurately analyze large numbers of cells for use in the cancer therapy. Engineers from the University of Houston along with physicians from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center were able to demonstrate the method’s potential in research evaluating how effective various types of T cells are in killing cancer cells.

“This is a case of biologists, clinicians, and computer scientists coming together toward a common purpose,” said Badri Roysam, chairman of the UH Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and lead author of the Bioinformatics paper.

While clinical studies have reported life-saving results from cancer immunotherapy, they don’t work for everyone, including patients with one of the cancers for which the treatments have proven most successful.

With the help of TIMING, this fact could be changed by allowing researchers to study many more interactions between immune cells and cancer cells. This can be done thanks to the ability of TIMING to automatically analyze thousands of cell interactions at any given moment, which is in contrast to the conventional method of manually analyzing each combination.

Most conventional methods only cover between 10 and 100 samples from a test, whereas TIMING can analyze anywhere between 10,000 to even 100,000 samples at once. That matters, the researchers note, “since many biologically significant cellular subpopulations like tumor stem cells, multi-killer immune cells and biotechnologically relevant protein secreting cells, are rare.”

TIMING works by having a nanowell grid that allows discrete samples of immune cells and cancer cells to be confined and studied over time via time-lapse video recording.

“We’ve developed a game-changing piece of software that can accurately analyze an entire grid of nanowell videos and make quantitative measurements,” Roysam said.

According to Roysam, it is essentially the combination of a supermicroscope and a supercomputer to screen cell-cell interactions on a large scale.

A researcher who worked with Roysam on the project said the system allows high-performing outliers to be identified for further research. Several types of immune cells were used, including T cells, CAR cells and what are known as natural killer cells, which can detect tumors without modification. Researchers used leukemia cells and melanoma cells in their experiments.

The TIMING method has deepened the understanding of immunotherapy, including how different types of T cells function against cancer cells. As a result, researchers demonstrated for the first time at a single-cell level that CD4 T cells are active in the killing of multiple tumor cells.