Dendritic cell (image courtesy of Dr Sonya James and the Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre)

This entry is part 2 of 30 in the series Science Snaps

In this post we re-open our microscopic treasure chest and fish out another striking image from our researchers.

This time we look at the immune system and how images produced by our scientists in Southampton are helping to find ways to turn the immune system’s focus towards cancer.

The immune system is our own personal ‘police force’.

Different cells fall into the ranks of officers, inspectors and detectives that patrol the ‘streets’ within our body, seeking out unwelcome intruders to protect us from infections and disease.

The image we’ve selected this month – provided by Dr Sonya James – picks out one branch of the cellular police force – a type of cell called a dendritic cell.

But what can snapping pictures of dendritic cells tell us about cancer?

Breaking down the ranks

When it comes to cancer, our protective ‘police force’ can go a little quiet.

Cancer cells are particularly good at giving the immune system the slip. Our scientists want to find out why.

By taking a closer look at the way immune cells interact with cancer cells, our researchers are trying to find new ways to tackle the disease.

They’re particularly interested in dendritic cells as these are a part of the immune system’s specialised ‘surveillance cells’.

Dendritic cells patrol our body and when they encounter something ‘foreign’ they can trigger a full-blown immune response – like a police officer radioing in for back up.

Immune accessories

To work out how dendritic cells spot these intruders and relay that information to the rest of the immune system, our researchers need to be able to pick them out from the cellular crowd.

To do this they take advantage of a unique set of immune accessories that dendritic cells carry around with them.

Like the handcuffs, truncheon and hat that a police officer classically carries, various specialised molecules are stuck to the outside of dendritic cells.

Scientists can use fluorescent ‘tags’ that seek out these immune accessories, allowing the researchers to spot dendritic cells grown in the lab.

And that’s exactly what’s been done in this month’s image – the fluorescent green highlights a molecule only present on the dendritic cell.

Cellular firework display

Dendritic cells on the beat

Dendritic cells on the beat

Using a specialised microscope and different fluorescent tags, our researchers are able to build up a 3D image of the dendritic cell.

It may look like a firework exploding but what you actually see are specialised projections that the dendritic cell uses to investigate the environment and send signals to other cells.

In these images we can see other cells – stained fluorescent red – that have been modified in the lab so they behave like a cancer cell.

The researchers can use these altered cells to see how the dendritic cell responds.

Images like this are important as they show how the altered cell and dendritic cell interact, including what molecules help the dendritic cell spot a foreign invader.

What does this mean for cancer?

By taking a closer look at how immune cells and cancer cells interact, our researchers are piecing together clues to understand how cancer evades the immune system.

The goal of this research is to find ways to retrain our immune police force to boost its surveillance skills and provide a more potent anti-cancer response.

This is an exciting field of research – known as immunotherapy – and some striking early results are beginning to emerge from labs around the world.

Our researchers in Southampton – along with several other labs we fund – are part of this worldwide effort and by snapping images of how cancer cells respond to immune interrogation they hope to bring forward the day when we can say “case closed” on cancer.