Project Wonder - The art of science at the Medical College of Wisconsin


What if cancer treatment could be as specific as a paint-by-number? MCW scientists discovered how to color-code cells for customized treatment. This process, immunophenotyping, tags cells within solid tumors with fluorescent colors to predict how patients will respond to immunotherapies.

This mosaic is actually an image of lung cancer captured by Yunguang Sun, MD, PhD and assistant professor in the department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine that may hold clues to a critical question for cancer specialists, researchers and patients: Can we personalize cancer immunotherapy to quickly get patients the best treatment option?

Cancer cells have many potential methods for stealthily avoiding the detection of or weakening the immune system. Immunotherapies are designed to supercharge immune cells against cancer, and they are now commonly used as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or radiation. Recent research has shown that numerous factors influence whether a patient will respond to a specific type of immunotherapy. Better understanding of these factors will help physicians determine which patients are the best candidates for immunotherapy and get them the treatment predicted to be most effective.

To achieve this goal, MCW scientists are using a process known as immunophenotyping to tag specific proteins and immune cells within various cancer types with the fluorescent colors that make up this mosaic. By using these extremely detailed images, researchers can identify patterns of proteins and immune cells (also known as biomarkers) within the tumor that are predictive of how patients will respond to various immunotherapies. Once these patterns are better understood in the lab, the team would use them to help cancer specialists identify different types of tumors in patients and determine the best course of treatment.