Finding successful treatments for cancer has proven one of the greatest challenges for medical research.
This is complicated by the fact that tumours are very different from each other, and that they are all able to exploit normal mechanisms in the human body in order to grow.
ERC grantee Prof Yvette van Kooyk, from VU University of Amsterdam, believes that a successful therapy should take advantage of how specific tumours modulate the body's immune response and use it against them.
Her project GlycoTreat focuses on developing glycan-based nanomedicines that will induce an immune reaction strong enough to destroy cancer cells.
Glycans, complex sugar molecules, are at the basis of the success of these new compounds.
Receptors on cells known as dendritic cells can bind glycans that bring the cancer antigen inside the cell thereby initiating the responseof cancer specific cytotoxic immune cells and the production of antibodies, just as they would do in response to any malignant cells.
By exploiting glycan chemistry and the small size of these compounds, Prof van Kooyk wants to produce highly specific therapies and boost this immune response as much as possible.
Although, so far, in order to prove successful, the treatment must be administered in the early stages of cancer development, the research has greatly advanced.
Prof van Kooyk is hoping to establish a combination treatment that uses the new nanomedicines as both a cure for people with cancer and a preventative vaccine.
Her efforts so far have proven successful, also thanks to the development of a state-of-the-art model of human skin that her team uses to fine-tune the body's reaction to different molecules.
If initially her project was based on melanoma and cervical cancer, currently she is expanding into looking at the responses for pancreatic cancer and a type of brain cancer known as glioblastoma.
These are two of the most severe and aggressive forms, for which treatments are very often only palliative.
By exploring glyco-biology for immunology purposes, Prof van Kooyk has set the foundation for the development of a new pathway for the development of cancer treatments.
How far are we from developing a successful vaccine for cancer?
That's a difficult question! Close but not yet there.
We can induce a response in the immune systems, but tumours are fighting against us, and they too can use these responses and modify them to their advantage.
We know a lot about the whole process, now we need to optimise it so we can create a successful drug.
What is novel about the vaccine you are working on?
Usually, anticancer immunity is achieved by taking cells from the patient, triggering an immune reaction and then reintroducing them in the patient.
This is complicated and very laborious since it has to be done for each individual patient.
We trigger the response in the patient itself, a bit like the influenza vaccine. We know what cells we want to trigger, in the skin there are specific sugar structures that bind to these cells and enhance the induction of a response. Also, a lot of research uses antibodies, with this ERC project, we use very small nanosugars.
Not many people are doing this because knowledge of glycan chemistry and immunology are hard to find together in the same team, but if you coat the vaccine with sugar, we have shown that we get a good and specific response
How does your work compare with previous efforts to develop a vaccine?
Let's think about the HPV vaccine developed some years ago, for example.
These work but not completely, such as against very aggressive types of cancer. We modify the vaccine in such a way that it acts directly on the immune system to trigger the response. Even the current vaccine available could be improved thanks to these sugars.
What has changed after receiving your ERC grant?
Since this research combines both aspects of immunology and glycan chemistry, it's important to have a large team to work with.
The grant has allowed me to employ more people, in that way I can tackle a complex issue from different angles.
I have someone working specifically on the tumours, someone focusing on the human response, biochemists trying to improve the efficiency of the vaccine and the structure of the sugars. In addition the team comes from all over Europe.
What is next for you and your team?
After two years I can say that the project is proved to be a success, although we can always do more.
We are hoping to receive further support to develop human trials and undergo all the procedures to bring the vaccine to the market. I cannot say when this will be, because it will require a large investment of resources, but we definitely already have a new, promising treatment to start with.
(24 Jan 2017)