New York: Scientists have found that a gene associated with autoimmune hair loss disorder may also help improve cancer immunotherapy -- treatment that uses body's own immune system to fight cancer.

The findings showed that a gene named IKZF1 recruits T cells in alopecia areata -- a condition in which immune cells attack and destroy hair cells -- that gets switched off during several types of cancer.

Switching off IKZF1 protects the tumour cells from the immune system. But activating this gene may expose the cancer cells to the immune system and help the immune cells to attack the invading cancer cells.

"We showed that a gene that recruits T cells in alopecia areata is turned off in various types of cancer, protecting them from the immune system. But if we turn that gene back on, we can make those cancers vulnerable to the immune response," said Angela M. Christiano from Columbia University in New York City, US.

For the study, published in the journal Cell Systems, the team examined mouse models with melanoma cancer, in which the tumours were genetically modified to express IKZF1.

The results showed that the gene helped the immune system infiltrate the tumours causing them to lose at least some ability to escape the immune system.

While prostate cancer could also be made more responsive to immunotherapy, colorectal and kidney tumours would not respond to immunotherapy if IKZF1 expression was increased, because the gene was found to be inactive in these tumours, the researchers found.

Further, analysis of data from previous study of melanoma patients with disabled IKZF1 gene showed higher recurrence rates and worse survival.

"We should be able to identify genetic signals that are hyperactive in autoimmune disease, and then harness those signals in tumours that have developed a way to avoid the immune response," the researchers said.