If confirmed in other studies, the researchers say their findings could lead to improved treatment in the future.
The type of brain cancer in the study is glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing tumor. People with this type of cancer survive an average of less than two years, even after treatment with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, the study authors said.
"We've had luck with other types of cancer in removing the brakes on the immune system to allow it to fight the tumors, but this has not been the case with glioblastoma," said study author Dr. Anhua Wu, of First Hospital of China Medical University in Shenyang, China.
"If our discovery of these genes is validated in other studies, we could use this 'gene signature' to determine the best treatments or path of treatment," Wu explained in a news release.
The investigators looked at tissue samples from 127 people with glioblastoma. They also looked at tissue samples from 170 people with a less aggressive type of brain tumor.
This led to the discovery of eight immune genes that play a role in glioblastoma. Three of the genes protect against glioblastoma. Five of the genes increase the risk of early death in patients with glioblastoma, the researchers said.
Wu and colleagues then looked at more than 500 samples from another group of people with glioblastoma. These samples revealed the same eight genes, the study authors noted.
The report was published online May 25 in the journal Neurology.
Dr. Rifaat Bashir, a retired neurologist in Reston, Va., wrote an editorial accompanying the study. "The looming question in brain cancer research today is whether the launch of immunotherapy will help control an uncontrollable disease," Bashir said in the journal news release.
"While this study does not answer this question, it brings us one step closer to believing that one day we will be able to exploit the immune system to better treat glioblastoma," Bashir noted.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has more on glioblastoma