European research funding granted to help beat cancer

Written by: Øyvind Halaas, Boukje Ehlen and Otto Paans

A partnership of researchers and companies received a 4 million euro grant to help beat cancer. This consortium, with members from Norway, Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands plans to make a radical change in treatment, by bringing together cutting-edge skills and expertise. They have received research funding from the European Commission’s European Innovation Council (EIC) Pathfinder fund (H2020-FETOPEN), a very prestigious grant that selects only the most excellent ideas and partnerships.

What do you plan to do?

Instead of injecting chemicals that are toxic to cancer cells into the body (like in chemotherapy) or applying an external destructive force such as X-rays (like in radiation therapy) to kill the cancer cells, the INCITE consortium wants to use the patient’s own immune system to defeat cancer. This type of treatment is called immunotherapy, and clinical data show that it is a very promising approach, but not yet curative for most types of cancer. One of the major challenges to overcome is to train the right cells of our immune system how to be most efficient in their job.

Training cells of our immune system?

You can see our immune cells as soldiers of our bodies: a whole army of cells ready to attack the enemy, whether that is a flu, something bad we ate, bacteria that enter a wound, or cancer. Yet, our body needs different soldiers with different training for different tasks. For some germs, such as most viruses, our natural immune system is adequately strong to protect us of the invading pathogens. For an enemy such as cancer, the task becomes trickier, as the cancer tries to disguise itself as a benign, healthy cell. Hence, it is crucial that the cells of our immune system, the anti-tumour T cells, recognise the cancer as what it is, a threat, and start attacking. On the other hand, it is very important that these T cells do not mistake our own healthy cells as a threat, since they would otherwise kill cells that we need for everyday functions. But as cancer cells evolve from our own cells, detecting them without mistaking healthy cells for cancer cells is a challenging job!

Even if we manage to create killer T cells that specifically attack cancer, the attacking force is often not strong enough to really penetrate into the tumour for long enough to destroy all the cancer cells there. This is especially true for solid tumours. And here is where immunotherapy can help. Some immunotherapies aim to make the tumour site more susceptible to attack and then rely on naturally occurring immunity towards the cancer. However, the strategy we have chosen in INCITE is to train cytotoxic T cells—i.e. T cells that are toxic too and can destroy cancer cells—to become stronger, more vigorous and longer-lasting, that is, “educating elite soldiers specifically trained to operate beyond the enemy lines of the tumour.”

How are you going to train those T cells?

We will take certain T cells from the patient and train them in a specially built “training ground”, or an academy if you wish. We will construct this training ground in the form of a 3D printed immune niche microenvironment, where cells will be trained to generate the fittest soldier cells to fight the cancer. As this has never been done before, the education programme needs to be developed, supported by modelling and experiments, and to be improved until the point where enough T cells can be trained and replicated to create an effective self-sustaining army for the immune system to deploy.

If you succeed, what’s next?

This training method will revolutionise the treatment of cancer, with a profound impact on the quality of life and well-being of many of the patients living with cancer and where other options are failing. The team is convinced that even though there are several other options to treat cancer, the approach chosen by INCITE will see general implementation in cancer therapy. Hopefully, with the correct training grounds, we will also be able to address further inadequacies and malfunctions of the immune system. But first, to the tasks of building an academy for cancer-killing T cells!