Immunotherapy against cancer: the expected revolution

Céline Giustranti
Treating cancer by using our own defense structure: the immune system. This concept is known as immunotherapy. Long the subject of discussion, it is fundamentally transforming the way cancer is managed. Researchers and doctors are exploring many possible leads to make the immune system fight cancer cells effectively.

For several years, there has been intense excitement concerning immunotherapy against cancer. The famed American journal Science was right to place this discipline at the top of its list of major advances in 2013. And although some are still skeptical, almost every year the largest annual clinical oncology meeting, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), confirms this fact. The scientific and medical community agrees: immunotherapy could represent a true revolution in the coming years.

This assessment is confirmed by the immunologist Sebastian Amigorena, director of the immunity and cancer laboratory (Inserm/Institut Curie) and director of the cancer immunotherapy center at Institut Curie:

In oncology, this therapeutic strategy should have an interesting future. The results obtained in the current trials have exceeded our expectations, since it is now possible to treat patients with very advanced cancer, which leads us to think that, in patients with less advanced cancers, the treatments will be even more effective. However, this medication is not without side effects; it is therefore very important to develop efforts to limit these side effects at the same time.

Why has this giant step been made in a discipline long considered to be too slow in terms of progress made? “Due to a change in point of view,” explains the researcher. “Cancer is now no longer seen only as a disease of the genes, but also as a disease of the organism, the tumor environment and the immune system.” In fact, tumor cells proliferate in the organism with impunity; they escape from the immune system. It is by understanding how they succeed in doing so that researchers can now offer solutions to counteract them.

“Basically, immunotherapy offers two options,” explains Vassili Soumelis, physician and immunologist at Institut Curie. “If the immune system does not recognize the tumor as a foreign body, a response must be induced by educating it, in other words, by teaching it to recognize the tumor as dangerous. If the response is there but it is not strong enough, it has to be stimulated to ensure that it is strong enough to battle its opponent!”