New research has uncovered a new technique to decipher how millions of individual cells are communicating with each other in miniature tumours grown in the lab.

The study, published in Nature Methods, marks the first time that scientists have been able to analyse many different signalling molecules at once in individual cells within replicas of patients’ tumours.

Now, understanding how cells communicate could reveal how tumours are able to evade the immune system and become resistant to treatments.

The scientists involved say that this revelation could allow for more effective new drugs to be developed, by revealing why tumours respond the way they do to treatments. It could also help doctors to select the best course of treatment for each individual patient, by testing treatments on a bespoke replica of a patient’s tumour before prescribing them.

In order to listen in on cancer cells, the team grew organoids in the lab, which mimic the behaviour of cancer in the human body much more accurately than cells grown in a dish.

They say they then modified a “complex” technique called mass cytometry, which is used to detect and analyse protein molecules, and then the organoids were broken up into individual cells, and antibodies combined with heavy metal atoms were added.

They then nebulised the cells to convert them into a fine mist, and electrically charged the heavy meal atoms, so that a magnetic field could be used to separate out the different signalling molecules.

Dr Emily Armstrong, research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that having a better understanding of this complex communication between cancer cells and other types of cell that make up a tumour could “reveal secrets of how cancer comes back after treatment and spreads around the body.”

She continued, “While this technique is in the early stages of development right now, in the future we may be able to grow replicas of individual patients’ tumours, to identify early signs that a drug won’t work for them so we can personalise their treatment plan. We hope this could one day help more people to survive cancer”.

The team say that the next steps will be to use this technique to look for ways to block the communications between cells that allow them to withstand treatment, and they also have hopes to test this new technique in different types of cancer.