Researchers at Boston Medical Center and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute conducted one of the first-ever analyses of neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) at single cell resolution, unlocking new insights into this rare and often hard-to-treat cancer. The findings represent a tremendous leap forward in understanding why these tumors are largely resistant to immunotherapy and provide key insights that could lead to future treatments.

“This study was a tour-de-force that catalyzed the efforts and innovations of researchers across Boston – including Boston Medical Center and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute - and has resulted in a better understanding of the molecular drivers of these heterogeneous, difficult-to-treat tumors,” said co-author Matthew Kulke, MD, chief of hematology/oncology at Boston Medical Center, Co-Director of the BU/BMC Cancer Center, and the Zoltan Kohn Professor at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. “The findings represent a potential first step towards opening up new potential treatments for patients who have neuroendocrine tumors.” 

Neuroendocrine cells are found in organs throughout the human body and send messages through hormones that help the body function. In adults, NETs often originate in the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and lung. Despite new forms of treatment, the tumors remain difficult to treat and are largely resistant to immunotherapy, which has revolutionized treatments for other cancers. In part, the reason for this challenge is that the understanding of the underlying biology of NETs was incomplete.

“This study provides remarkable insights about the heterogeneity of neuroendocrine tumors and the tumor and immune microenvironment,” said Jennifer Chan, MD, MPH, Clinical Director, Gastrointestinal Cancer Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “We are currently building on this work with the aim to discover new therapeutic strategies that will advance the care of patients with neuroendocrine tumors.”

Through this study, researchers sought to understand both the tumors themselves and the surrounding cells in the tumor microenvironment. Leveraging single cell sequencing allowed for an unprecedented view of the genes and signaling pathways that are involved in tumor progression and potential response to immunotherapy.  The team uncovered previously unappreciated heterogeneity within neuroendocrine tumor subtypes and revealed potential evolution in tumor characteristics as they metastasize. At that resolution, they were also able to observe cells and related proteins in that microenvironment that suppress immune responses. Targeting those proteins could render these tumors more responsive to immunotherapy treatment.

The full study was published today in “Science Advances” and can be located here.


About Boston Medical Center

Boston Medical Center models a new kind of excellence in healthcare, where innovative and equitable care empowers all patients to thrive. We combine world-class clinicians and cutting-edge treatments with compassionate, quality care that extends beyond our walls. As an award-winning health equity leader, our diverse clinicians and staff interrogate racial disparities in care and partner with our community to dismantle systemic inequities. And as a national leader in research and the teaching affiliate for Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, we’re driving the future of care.


About Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is one of the world’s leading centers of cancer research and treatment. Dana-Farber’s mission is to reduce the burden of cancer through scientific inquiry, clinical care, education, community engagement, and advocacy. Dana-Farber is a federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. We provide the latest treatments in cancer for adults through Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center and for children through Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Dana-Farber is the only hospital nationwide with a top 5 U.S. News & World Report Best Cancer Hospital ranking in both adult and pediatric care. As a global leader in oncology, Dana-Farber is dedicated to a unique and equal balance between cancer research and care, translating the results of discovery into new treatments for patients locally and around the world, offering more than 1,100 clinical trials



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