Computational biology has enabled researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to develop a new method to identify melanoma patients.

A new study also highlights the role computational biology could play in furthering understanding of cancer biology and patient outcomes in the future.

The method outlined in the research measures the extent of tumour-fighting natural killer immune cells in tumours of patients with metastatic melanoma. This method of classification could, in the future, help guide the selection of therapies for people with the disease.

The research team's computational analysis identifies putative gene targets, which could be of therapeutic value for boosting NK cell anti-tumor immunity.

Using a technique called RNA sequencing, the research team was able to measure the relative proportions of different genes within a tumour, including genes that are switched on in NK cells.

The study, published in Cancer Immunology Research, provides evidence that these NK cells play a role in the regulation of human tumors and highlight potential survival effects associated with increased NK cell activity.

By quantifying the level of NK cell infiltration in a tumour, the NK gene signature the research team developed could help to decide how likely a patient is to benefit from immunotherapies.

"This 'NK gene signature' correlated with the survival rate of these patients: patients with a high expression level of these NK genes survived, on average, longer than those patients with low levels of the gene signature," Dr. Joseph Cursons, one of the leaders of the study, said in a statement.

He explained that the study results reinforce the role of NK cells as key melanoma-fighting immune cells.

"It has also been shown that patients whose melanomas have larger numbers of NK cells within them survive, on average, longer than those whose tumours have lower levels of NK cells," said researcher Dr. Fernando Souza-Fonseca-Guimaraes in a statement.

He noted that in some patients, the anti-melanoma immune response could also be harnessed to treat the cancer – a form of treatment called immunotherapy that has recently shown promise.

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer responsible for more than a thousand deaths a year in Australia and is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country.

The Institute's research could assist in the development and trialling of new approaches to treating metastatic melanoma, although the organization noted the study was is preclinical, and not currently available for predicting patient outcomes in a clinical setting.

"We hope our research provides a justification for future melanoma clinical trials to routinely include measures of gene expression – an area called transcriptomics – to differentiate groups of patients and how well they may respond to available therapies," WEHI professor Dr. Melissa Davis noted in a statement.

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