Immunotherapy of cancer

The immune system not only protects us against infectious pathogens, but also against cancer. Unfortunately, this protection is not perfect and immune failure can lead to disease. Since the development of the small pox vaccine in the 18th century, we have learned to harness the immune defense against pathogens and thereby to control many infectious diseases.

It has taken much longer to develop similar strategies to strengthen the immune defense against cancer. The main reason is that the immunological difference between tumors and normal tissue is much more subtle than between pathogen-infected and healthy cells. Importantly, critical advances in the field of tumor immunology have recently resulted in the approval of the first cancer immunotherapy drugs:

Ipilimumab/Yervoy (anti-CTLA-4)

Nivolumab/Opdivo (anti-PD1)

Pembrolizumab/Keytruda (anti-PD-1)

These drugs induce therapeutic immune responses in cancer patients by overcoming inhibitory signals that suppress the reactivity of the immune system to the tumor cells.

While this success confirms the potential of the immune system in fighting cancer, analyses of human tumors have shown that different mechanism of immune suppression underlie immune failure in cancer (sub-)types, pointing at the need for multiple treatment options/drugs to overcome immune failure in human cancer (personalized medicine). Accordingly, clinical results for the aforementioned drugs, often referred to as ‘checkpoint blockers’, differ greatly between individual patients and cancer types.

The mission of the IACT consortium is to develop a new class of immunotherapeutic drugs that is complementary to the checkpoint blockers, thereby creating new therapeutic options for cancer patients.