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Fundamental to cancer is its ability to avoid the immune system. Now according to researchers from the University of Southern California that trait may become cancer’s greatest vulnerability. In human breast and colorectal cancers a technique for determining a tumor’s “immune signature,” could be useful for diagnosing and treating specific cancers.

The immune system can kill cancer cells and does so regularly. What allows cancer to propagate is the ability of genetic changes in the cancer cells to evade the immune system. The immune system is confused about whether a cancer cell is a foreign invader or just another one of your cells.

In an article published in Clinical Cancer Research, a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, the researchers show how to determine which genes have been altered in a tumor to allow it to evade the body’s natural defenses. This could become a standard practice in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“The implication is that once you know the mechanism by which tumors evade the immune system, you can match that tumor to available therapies,” said senior author Alan L.Epstein, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Pathology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “First, we find the genetic changes that allow a tumor to defeat the immune system, then we can apply therapies that compensate for these genetic alterations.”

Cancer cells exhibit a broad array of genetic and biological variations. The differences vary widely between cancer types, even between subcategories within a particular type of cancer. However, while the genetic variations that comprise an immune signature are complex, the researchers discovered that a small subset of genes is integral in explaining immunological behavior.

Encourage your oncologist to have genetic testing done to assess the best cancer treatment for your particular type of cancer.

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