CAN the immune system be taught to fight cancer? This therapeutic approach is high up on the agenda of oncology researchers, who are stepping up the pace of research on immunotheraphy, a promising form of treatment in a bid to save as many lives as possible.
At the World Cancer Congress in Chicago in June, a team from France's Institut Gustave Roussy in Villejuif on the outskirts of Paris presented a new immunotherapy treatment called nivomulab, aimed at treating so-called “female” cancers such as vaginal and cervical cancer. In 70 per cent of patients, the treatment was found to stabilise the disease. What's more, cancer was even found to regress in 20 per cent of women treated.
While immunotherapy also offers good results, validated in clinical trials, for melanoma skin cancer, kidney cancer and lung cancer, scientists now have breast cancer treatment in their sights.
Their work notably focuses on aggressive tumours like triple-negative breast cancers, which account for 15 per cent of breast cancer cases affecting younger women who aren't yet covered by screening programmes.
For this kind of cancer, sustainable clinical responses have been observed in patients in advanced stages of the disease, responding poorly to chemotherapy and when metastasis has developed, explain the researchers.
Building on the growing interest in immunotherapy, France's Institut Curie is opening a centre for cancer immunotherapy in order to accelerate research in the field of these new treatments.
The centre, which will welcome almost 100 scientists, aims to establish early clinical trials, study combinations of treatments, identify new predictive cancer biomarkers, understand the mechanisms of action involved in immunotherapy treatments, and why some but not all patients respond to this kind of therapy.
Specialists currently estimate that 20 per cent of patients respond to treatment by immunotherapy.