13 October 2020

Source eLife

Immune T cells that kill cancer swarm to tumours by following a chemical gradient left by other T cells, a pre-clinical study by UNSW Sydney medical researchers has shown. 

When immune system T cells find and recognise a target, they release chemicals to attract more T cells which then swarm to help subdue the threat, shows a new study in cultured mouse and human cells and animal models published today in eLife.

The discovery of this swarming behaviour, and the chemical attractants that immune cells use to direct swarms towards tumours, could down the track help scientists develop new cancer therapies that boost the immune system. This is particularly important for solid tumours, which so far have been less responsive to current immunotherapies than cancers affecting blood cells.

“Scientists have previously thought that cancer-killing T cells identified tumours by randomly searching for them or by following the chemical trails laid by other intermediary immune cells,” says lead author Jorge Luis Galeano Niño, a PhD graduate at UNSW. “We wanted to investigate this further to see if it’s true, or whether T cells locate tumours via another mechanism.”

Using 3D tumour models grown in the laboratory and in mouse models, the team showed that cancer-killing T cells can home-in on tumour cells independently of intermediary immune cells. When the T cells find and recognise a tumour, they release chemical signals, which then attract more T cells that sense the signals through a receptor called CCR5, and cause a swarm. “These cells coordinate their migration in a process reminiscent of the swarming observed in some insects and another type of immune cell called neutrophils, which help the body respond to injury and pathogens,” Galeano Niño says.

After confirming their results using computer modelling, the team genetically engineered human cells called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cells and showed they also swarm toward a 3D glioblastoma tumour grown in the laboratory.

CAR-T cells are currently being used to treat certain types of blood cancer. But the new findings suggest that it might also be possible to train these cells to attack solid tumours.

“Although this is fundamental research and at an early stage, the swarming mechanism could be exploited in the future to target CAR-T cells to solid tumours, potentially leading to enhanced immunotherapies that are more effective at infiltrating and destroying solid tumours,” says senior author Maté Biro, EMBL Australia Group Leader at the Single Molecule Science node, UNSW.

“It will also be important to determine whether silencing the swarming mechanism could be beneficial in dampening overzealous T cell responses following transplant surgery, in autoimmune conditions, or during viral infections,” he says.

When immune system T cells find and recognise a target, they release chemicals to attract more T cells which
then swarm to help subdue the threat. By Jorge Luis Galeano Niño

About EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science (SMS)

Researchers at SMS investigate a broad array of fundamental biological systems and medical problems including cancer biology, immunology, virology, nanotechnology and more. A common thread that runs through all our research groups is a multidisciplinary approach to providing molecular perspectives to biological processes. SMS is an interdisciplinary research department within UNSW, an EMBL Australia Partner Laboratory, and a node of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging. Learn more about SMS at

About eLife

eLife is a non-profit organisation created by funders and led by researchers. Our mission is to accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours. We work across three major areas: publishing, technology and research culture. We aim to publish work of the highest standards and importance in all areas of biology and medicine, including Computational and Systems Biology and Immunology and Inflammation, while exploring creative new ways to improve how research is assessed and published. We also invest in open-source technology innovation to modernise the infrastructure for science publishing and improve online tools for sharing, using and interacting with new results. eLife receives financial support and strategic guidance from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Max Planck Society and Wellcome. Learn more at