What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy involves using the immune system to eliminate cancer cells, just as it works to attack bacteria and viruses. Rather than targeting the cancer cells directly, this treatment teaches the immune system to recognize and destroy them. This type of treatment can target various cells involved in the immune response.
Immunotherapy covers several therapeutic approaches and has been very successful in recent years. Some immunotherapy treatments are already authorized and others are still being assessed.
- Therapeutic vaccines against cancer: Traditional vaccines specifically activate the immune system so that it can defend itself against bacteria or viruses. Vaccines against cancer teach the immune system to attack cancer cells. This teaching process involves presenting the immune system with a protein located on the tumors. The only approved vaccine to date treats advanced forms of prostate cancer. Others are still being studied.
- Unlocking the immune system to enable it to attack cancer cells: This is the strategy that has been the most highly developed in recent years. Everything started from a simple observation that cancer cells are able to bypass the immune system by activating immune response inhibitors known as immune checkpoints. There are already several treatments using antibodies capable of blocking the action of the immune checkpoints and thus “unlocking” the immune system to enable it to reject tumors. These treatments have already proven effective in several tumor locations, among others in lung cancer, melanoma and kidney cancer. Today, the majority of patients unfortunately don’t respond to these treatments and research must continue to increase the number of people that can benefit from immunotherapy. Some options are already promising, and a number of trials are underway to expand the list of cancers than can be cured using immunotherapy.
Treatment and research at Institut Curie
Immunotherapy is a priority for Institut Curie, which houses the only Cancer Immunotherapy center in France today. A number of specialists are working out of this center, including physicians, researchers, nurses and research coordinators. There are 20 patient beds in the Clinical Investigation unit.
Immunotherapy is a new weapon in the fight against cancer, much like chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapies. It is therefore vital to improve knowledge in this field in order to develop new medications, learn how to use them better, and combine them with other treatments in order to offer them to a maximum number of patients. Several clinical trials are currently underway at Institut Curie on the various approaches of immunotherapy and several different tumor locations.
The main aims of the Cancer Immunotherapy center will be as follows:
• To implement early trials and study combinations of treatments that could improve therapeutic effectiveness.
• To discover new predictive biomarkers.
• To understand the mechanisms of immunotherapy and why some patients respond and others don’t.
One of the priorities of the Cancer Immunotherapy center will also be to develop cellular engineering technologies and, in particular, a new generation of cells known as CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptors). The principle of this approach lies in changing the patient’s T-cells to make them able to target and eliminate cancer cells. While traditional CAR-T technologies can treat only liquid tumors, those studied at the Cancer Immunotherapy center use a different principle and have the ability to target both solid and liquid tumors.