Researchers have developed a new method of analyzing cancer cells that has allowed them to essentially listen in on the conversations that such cells have with one another and that permit them to grow unchecked in the body.

This means of assessing the signaling molecules that cancer cells use to communicate with one another could help researchers better tailor cancer treatments to the needs of individual patients. The technique could also aid researchers in determining how tumors manage to evade the immune system and in developing new drugs and determining how tumors develop resistance to anticancer treatments.

Researchers at University College London developed a method of analyzing individual cells by growing organoids in the lab. Organoids are self-organizing 3-D structures constructed out of cancer cells alongside other cells, including immune cells and connective tissue that model how cancer behaves in the body more accurately than traditional petri dish cellular models.

The investigators modified the organoids using a method known as mass cytometry, which detects and analyzes protein molecules. First, they break up the organoids into their individual cell components; then, they add to the mix antibodies that have been combined with heavy metal atoms.

Next, the researchers convert the cells into a fine mist and add an electrical charge to the heavy metal atoms. This creates a magnetic field that separates the various molecules that the cancer cells use to signal to one another.

As described in Nature Methods, the scientists assessed this process on colon cancer cells. Analyzing over 1 million cells, the mass cytometry detected 28 different signaling molecules used by six different cell types.

The investigators found evidence that the cells—the cancer cells as well as the immune cells and connective tissue—had essentially rewired the normal means by which the bowel tissue cells communicated. Having thus hijacked the bowel’s intercom, so to speak, the cancer cells were now running the show and growing without interference from the immune system.

Through future studies, the investigators hope to find ways to interrupt these communications between cancer cells and thus develop new treatments.

“Organoids are already revolutionizing cancer research by allowing us to test whether experimental new drugs are effective on lifelike models of tumors,” Chris Tape, PhD, lead researcher of the study at University College London, said in a press release. “But crucially, this new technique helps scientists to understand why a treatment works or not, by revealing in unprecedented detail how cells are talking to each other.”

“Having a better understanding of this complex communication between cancer cells and other types of cells that make up a tumor could reveal secrets of how cancer comes back after treatment and spreads around the body,” said Emily Armstrong, PhD, a research information manager at Cancer Research UK.

“While this technique is in the early stages of development right now,” Armstrong continued, “in the future we may be able to grow replicas of individual patients’ tumors, to identify early signs that a drug won’t work for them so we can personalize their treatment plan. We hope this could one day help more people to survive cancer.”

To read a press release about the study, click here.

To read the study abstract, click here.