Turning the immune system into an ally in the fight against cancer is the goal of the agreement signed this morning by BBVA Group Executive Chairman Francisco González and Dr. Josep Tabernero, Director of the Vall d’Hebron Oncology Institute (VHIO).
Endowed with a budget of €2.5 million, the Comprehensive Cancer Immunotherapy and Immunology Program (CAIMI) over the next four years will research the natural mechanisms by which the T lymphocytes – the white blood cells that mediate immune response – react to cancer and how to use these antitumor responses to create more personalized treatment.
On presenting the agreement, Francisco González explained that it forms part of the activities the BBVA Foundation carries out to promote biomedical research, in collaboration with research institutions of excellence. He noted that Catalan institutions are leaders in the sector due to their ability to link basic research with clinical research “with results that both benefit patients and produce knowledge.”
Dr. Josep Tabernero explained how this new cancer therapy works. Instead of directly attacking cancerous cells, immunotherapy “stimulates the immune system’s ability to discriminate between healthy cells and tumors, strengthening its ability to eliminate cancer cells.”
One of the advantages of immunotherapy over other treatments is that it generates a response in which the immune system is capable of recognizing tumor cells if they reappear and remembering to attack them. For this reason, “Immunotherapy can generate long-lasting responses and in some patients, the complete disappearance of a tumor, even in cases when the disease is very advanced,” Tabernero said.
Effective for very different kinds of tumors
This treatment has proven to be effective in treating different types of tumors, such as “melanoma, kidney cancer, bladder cancer and lung cancer,” added Dr. Tabernero. Immunotherapy has the added benefit that patients generally tolerate it better than more aggressive, conventional therapies.
This combination of effectiveness and sustained action over time has led to advances for treating cancers as virulent as melanoma, that were unthinkable not long ago. “Thanks to immunotherapy, the mean survival time in advanced cases has gone from nine months to approximately two years. Most importantly, the number of patients who are cured of this disease has increased significantly,” said Elena Garralda, the head of the CAIMI Early Clinical Drug Development Group.
Some tumors manage to block the immune system or even slip past it undetected"
However, some tumors manage to block the immune system or even slip past it undetected. To do so, they take advantage of the mechanism by which the immune system regulates itself and avoids attacking its own organism when healthy. “One of the strategies that tumor cells use is to block this function so they are free to multiply,” explained Alena Gros, who leads the CAIMI Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy Group.
There are drugs that inhibit immune system checkpoints. “They remove that brake and allow the immune cells to attack tumors.” This medicine “represents a genuine revolution in oncology and has led to new therapeutic solutions to treat lung, kidney, skin, bladder and head and neck cancers,” affirms Alena Gros.
In fact, VHIO helped to develop the drug atezolizumab, which in 2016 became the first treatment approved for bladder cancer in two decades. Recent studies have shown that it also improves survival in non-small-cell lung cancer.
The VHIO-BBVA Foundation Comprehensive Cancer Immunotherapy and Immunology Program will collaborate with other research centers and clinical sites. Alejandro Piris, head of Coordination and Scientific Management for CAIMI, stressed that: “Many of the clinical studies from which we obtain samples and the data we analyze to reach conclusions are carried out in partnership with both Spanish and European centers and cooperating institutions, such as the Gastrointestinal Tumour Treatment (GTT) Group, and the SOLTI Breast Cancer Research Group and many others.”