A recent study established an automated histological image processing technique to quantify spatial heterogeneity in the distribution patterns of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in breast cancer. The study entitled “Beyond immune density: critical role of spatial heterogeneity in estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer” was published in Modern Pathology by Institute of Cancer Research researchers in London.
A good prognosis in estrogen receptor-negative (ER negative) breast cancer has been associated with the abundance of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Still, there is a high level of spatial heterogeneity in lymphocytic infiltration and its clinical relevance is not well understood.
The team found that the quantity of co-localized cancer and immune hotspots weighted by tumor area rather than number of cancer or immune hotspots is associated with a better prognosis in estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer.
The research team used statistical software already utilized in hotspots of criminology cases to follow the extent to which immune cells arrive in and attack breast cancer cells. This method can evaluate if the patient’s immune system is delimiting cancer and discriminate which patients will need intensive treatment to inhibit a more aggressive tumor.
The team found that hotspots where immune cells are spatially grouped around breast cancer cells provided a better measurement of immune responses than only the numbers of immune cells inside the tumor. The research team found that patients with cancers showing higher number of spots and with lower number of spots survived approximately 91 and 64 months, respectively, before the tumor metastasized. This new methodology may complement the traditional methods of examining tumor samples using a microscope.
“Our research is aiming to develop completely new ways of telling apart more and less aggressive cancers, based on how successful the immune system is in keeping tumours in check,” said Dr. Yinyin Yuan, in a news release.
Dr. Yuan said that by analyzing how immune cells interact with tumor cells clinicians can divide women into two groups with distinct needs for specific types of therapies.
“Cancer remains one of the most challenging diseases affecting the UK population today, and technical innovation is key to improving its diagnosis and an individual’s initial prognosis,” said Prof. Philip Nelson, Chief Executive at EPSRC.
Prof. Nelson added that they are enthusiastic with these advances in computational methods which could be sued as future standard methods to improve clinical patient prognosis, noting that this study highlighted the importance of an interdisciplinary approach, including research on Engineering, Physical Sciences and Mathematical Sciences, to allow a better understanding of cancer, its progression and treatment.