Open Innovation

Immunotherapies

Novel Approaches in Oncology

Summary:

Cancers have inhibitory ligands that block the immune response directed against them.

Immuno-oncology research that includes the use of Checkpoint Inhibitors shows potential in removing this block.

German Cancer Research Center and Bayer collaborate to identify approaches unleashing the anti-tumor immune response.

In a healthy body, bacteria and viruses are eliminated by the immune system as quickly as possible. Immune cells, almost like microscopic watchmen, continuously patrol our body, tirelessly tracking down micro-organisms that can cause disease. For this purpose our body’s police force is equipped with receptors: these are used to scan the surface of all encountered cells and particles, as if patting them down with tiny hands. If immune cells detect a foreign structure, they immediately sound the alarm. This molecular patrol is even capable of identifying cancer cells.

Anti-Tumor Immune Response and Counter-Response

Our immune cells — including T-lymphocytes — are equipped with highly specific receptors, enabling them to mount a potent and specific response against pathogens and tumors alike. Many cancer cells, however, are equipped with inhibitory ligands. This allows them to interfere with the activity of those immune cells, ultimately suppressing the immune attack on cancer.

Seeking novel approaches in immuno-oncology

A new treatment strategy in oncology using so-called checkpoint inhibitors releases this brake: it re-activates the immune system, which can then successfully fight the cancer. “We are all very excited to see how checkpoint inhibitors influence cancer therapy,” says Dr. Fred Aswad, Head of the Immunoprofiling Group in Biologics Research at Bayer’s Pharmaceutical Division in San Francisco. Advanced melanoma, for instance, used to be a death sentence, but checkpoint blockade is proving effective in patients with this disease. Promising data from clinical trials also show efficacy in patients with other types of cancer.

Checkpoints
Checkpoint inhibitors re-activate the body’s immune system to target the tumor cells. Unlike conventional cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, cancer immunotherapy approaches usually continue to be efficacious even after the end of treatment (image courtesy of Bayer research magazine).

Dr. Bertolt Kreft and his colleagues at Immunotherapy & Antibody Conjugates in Oncology Research at Bayer’s Pharmaceutical Division in Berlin are working to identify innovative immunotherapies for cancer and to unleash the anti-tumor immune response. Their quest is further strengthened by collaboration with researchers from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. At the Joint Lab in Heidelberg, 10 researchers from both Bayer and the DKFZ are working together on new treatment strategies to enhance the anti-tumor immune response. Soon, two additional members will join the lab. The DKFZ researchers provide their expertise for specific therapeutic targets in immuno-oncology, while Bayer contributes expertise in drug development.

"I expect immuno-oncology to become established as an integral part of cancer treatment over the next few years and to offer real prospects," says Professor Rienk Offringa, head of the Bayer-DKFZ Joint Lab. “The greatest success has undoubtedly been made in the field of malignant melanoma.” Tremendous progress in recent years is also seen in immunotherapy for aggressive, malignant and hard-to-treat brain tumors, adds Professor Michael Platten, a neurology professor at the Heidelberg University Hospital and group leader in Neuroimmunology and Brain Tumor Immunology at the DKFZ.

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