Single gene alters immune response to deadly brain cancer

A new study of glioma in humans and mice links more aggressive immune response to poorer prognosis
Dr. Eric Holland
Dr. Eric Holland's team demonstrated in a preclinical model that removing immune cells from gliomas could extend survival. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A diagnosis of glioma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, is never one that oncologists want to deliver. But not all gliomas are created equal.

Mutations in the gene IDH are linked to much longer survival, regardless of the cancer’s stage at diagnosis. New results published earlier this month in the journal Genes and Development show that it’s likely because those mutations ease the immune response against glioma, in turn reducing the aggressiveness of tumors and prolonging patient survival.

Gliomas with un-mutated IDH, in contrast, prompt stronger immune responses that increase tumor aggressiveness and reduce survival.

Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center created a first-ever mouse model of gliomas with the IDH mutation and demonstrated that by reducing the number of immune cells in gliomas with normal IDH, they could increase survival. The new preclinical model will make deeper investigations into this type of glioma possible, said Dr. Eric Holland, the study’s senior author.

“We tested two questions,” said Holland, a brain cancer researcher and neurosurgeon who directs Fred Hutch’s Human Biology Division, Seattle Translational Tumor Research, and the Nancy and Buster Alvord Brain Tumor Center at the University of Washington. First, his team looked at whether mutations in IDH cause a drop in the number of immune cells entering tumors. Second, they asked whether this drop affects survival.

The team found that “if you reduce certain cell types [in gliomas with normal IDH], you can affect survival,” said Holland. Their findings point to potential new therapeutic avenues for glioma, he said.

A key gene

Brain tumors are not uniform. Many characteristics influence how quickly each tumor will progress, how well it will respond to treatment, and how long a patient diagnosed with glioma may live. For decades, pathologists estimated all of these factors by examining the shapes and arrangement of brain tumor cells under the microscope.

Based on these assessments, they would give the tumor a grade from 1 to 4, with 1 being least aggressive and 4 the most aggressive. With the advent of in-depth tumor gene sequencing studies came a new appreciation of genetic changes that could influence patient prognosis. One of the major insights was that gliomas that carry mutations in a gene known as isocitrate dehydrogenase, or IDH, are usually significantly less aggressive than gliomas with a normal IDH gene.

Patients whose gliomas carry a normal IDH gene have a median survival of about 18 months, meaning that half of patients will live longer than one-and-a-half years after their diagnosis, and half will not survive that long. It turns out, said Holland, that presence or absence of mutations in the IDH gene better predict survival than tumor grade.

But research is still needed to better understand IDH-mutant gliomas. Though less aggressive, they are “still deadly,” said Holland. “If you have a glioma, even if it’s mutant for IDH, it will kill you.”

IDH linked to immune response

Another notable difference between IDH-mutant and normal gliomas is that IDH-mutant gliomas have fewer immune cells. The interplay between cancer and our immune system is complex. Immunotherapies, based on various components of the immune system, are a promising new horizon in targeted treatment for some cancers. But an immune response against cancer is not always an unalloyed boon. In many tumor types, including gliomas, immune response–triggered inflammation is correlated with increased tumor growth and spread — and worse prognosis.

“You think of the immune system as good, but it’s not always good” when it comes to cancer, said Holland.

The major types of immune cells that correlate with worse prognosis in gliomas are different than T cells, the type of immune cell that is the focus of many immunotherapies. The presence of natural T cells that can recognize and destroy tumors often correlates with better patient prognosis, and scientists have developed ways to capitalize on this. But the immune cells that find their way inside gliomas are mostly macrophages, which are able to engulf pathogens, stimulate cell growth and enhance cell spread.

This “is part of a normal inflammatory response, which is a wounding response,” said Holland. “That’s not a cell-killing response, that’s a cell proliferating and fixing and roll up your sleeves and make more cells” type of response — but the problem is that the cells being fixed and stimulated to grow are tumor cells, he said.

Holland, brain cancer researcher and first author on the study Dr. Nduka Amankulor (formerly a physician-scientist in Holland’s lab who is now at the University of Pittsburgh) and their team assessed this response in more detail, examining the immune cells in tumor samples from 16 patients; six gliomas carried mutations in IDH and 10 did not. They found that in human IDH-mutant gliomas, far fewer immune cells, particularly macrophages, had shouldered their way in when compared to gliomas with normal IDH, suggesting that the vigor of the immune response against gliomas was linked to tumor aggressiveness.

But “If that’s all you knew [about human gliomas], then that would be just correlation,” said Holland. “So you need a system to test that, to figure out whether IDH-mutation messes with the immune system, whether the immune system messes with survival … you need to do an experiment.”

A new model

Doing an experiment requires a preclinical model of IDH-mutant gliomas — which didn’t exist when Amankulor and Holland started their project. Though IDH mutations can have big implications for patients, gliomas carrying these changes have resisted scientists’ attempts to study them. For still-unknown reasons, IDH-mutant glioma cells taken from patients won’t grow in laboratory cultures — although glioma cells with unaltered IDH do just fine. Mutating the IDH gene alone isn’t enough to trigger cancer development, either, making it difficult for researchers to create laboratory models they could use to gain a better understanding of how IDH mutations affect gliomas.

The team made three types of glioma mouse models with varying levels of glioma aggressiveness. And for every model, they made another complementary one that was the same in every way, except for the addition of a mutated IDH gene, making this the only initial difference between each pair.

The IDH-mutant tumors from their models shared many characteristics with human IDH-mutant tumors. Mice carrying the mutant IDH also lived longer in two models: a median of 71 days, compared to 64; and a median of 56 days compared to 42. In the model that mimicked the most aggressive tumors, mice lived an average of 35 or 36 days whether or not IDH was mutated.

The team chose the last model to investigate more closely, in order to keep differing tumor growth patterns from skewing their results. When they examined the immune cells within each glioma type, they found that the tumors continued to mimic their human counterparts: IDH-mutant gliomas harbored significantly fewer immune cells than did those with normal IDH.

Immune cells track sites of injury and disease by detecting molecules released by nearby tissue. Like bloodhounds, they follow the trail to its strongest point. When the scientists looked at the levels of these molecules, they found that IDH-mutant gliomas produced lower levels than gliomas with normal IDH, suggesting that IDH somehow dampened the immune cell–attracting, red-alert signals cancer cells usually give off.

And when Amankulor and the team experimentally depleted tumors of these immune cells, they found that mice with normal IDH survived longer. Trying to similarly modify the immune response to IDH-mutant gliomas, already low in immune cells, didn’t affect survival.

Holland expects that, with the new model he and his team developed, research into the fundamental nature of IDH-mutant glioma cells is just beginning. He is already teaming up with several Hutch colleagues to look more deeply at the interplay between IDH-mutant glioma cells and the immune system, and there is much more to be learned.

The complementary models give researchers the opportunity to study “the whole landscape” of IDH-mutant and normal gliomas, said Holland. And, he hopes, find “an Achilles heel to be exposed.”

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at

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