Milestones in immunotherapy

In 2011, the Nobel Prize went to scientists Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann and posthumously to Ralph M. Steinman. Their research has revolutionised our understanding of the immune system, according to the jury in Stockholm. They have researched receptors that recognise foreign cells and pathogens, and in doing so have discovered the central principles that activate the immune system. This has enabled new ways to fight infectious diseases and cancer.

The American immunologist Bruce Beutler and the French biologist Jules Hoffmann discovered that an immune reaction in the body requires an additional trigger, a clear "danger signal", so that a killer reaction can be established at all. This central finding is also implemented in IZOK therapy - through the use of the oncolytic virus in a vaccine from the patient's own cells.

Prof. Dr. Jules A. Hoffmann, Prof. Dr. Bruce Beutler, Ralph M. Steinman, Stefaan Van Gool with Prof. Steinman
( Pictures: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0, Rockefeller University NY )

Ralph M. Steinman:
Basis of our research and form of therapy

Steinman knew he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, but he did not receive the honour; he died three days before the announcement in October 2011. He had defied pancreatic cancer for four and a half years, but this great triumph eluded him. As early as 1973, Steinman discovered the previously unknown dendritic cells in the blood as part of his research work at Rockefeller University in New York.

He was able to show in cell culture that they can activate other cells, but for a long time he and the experts were not aware of the significance of this discovery. By now we know the potential of vaccines based on dendritic cells, but when Steinman received his cancer diagnosis in 2007 - with a life expectancy of six months - his therapy was an experiment, because in addition to chemotherapy, he relied on a vaccination with the help of "his" dendritic cells.

The plan worked. Ralph Steinman enjoyed a longer and healthier life than circumstances would have suggested. And he lived long enough to see vaccines based on his discovery successfully used on cancer patients.

The good thing about immunotherapy is that
it is so specific. Only the cell structure that is to be attacked is attacked.

The less precisely a treatment is targeted, the more side effects it causes, including the collateral damage that occurs, for example, with chemotherapies. With targeted therapies the problem remains that structures that are mostly found and attacked in tumours, are also present in normal cells - they are exposed to the same destructive attacks. This effect does not exist in the specific treatment form of cellular immunotherapy.

Another special feature of the therapy is that a part of the informed immune cells migrates into the bone marrow and forms an immunological memory there. It can prevent the development of metastases, which often remain undetected in early stages. As soon as the tumour cells become active again, the immune system is able to keep the growth of the tumour in check on its own because it is capable of learning.

Privately and publicly funded clinical trials worldwide

Of the numerous international studies on oncology, only a small proportion currently deals with the special segment of immunotherapy against cancer. Due to the individualised form of treatment, it does not promise high profits through a possible mass product.

Therefore, it is all the more important to support private initiatives that support research into this innovative form of therapy and promote the external communication of this topic.