New approaches to the treatment of early-stage liver cancer

10 Nov 2011

Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have played a major role in two studies that could fundamentally change the medical treatment of liver cancer. Doctors are now able to determine the degree of aggressiveness of the tumour in the early stages and can thus devise an individualised treatment plan.

The second study reveals the mechanisms used by the immune system to remove pre-malignant liver cells from the body and therefore opens up the possibility of a new therapeutic approach to treating cancer. The studies have been published by Gut and Nature, two highly regarded medical journals.

Two studies in top-ranking journals show new approaches to the treatment of early-stage liver cancer – the type of cancer that accounts for one third of all cancer deaths. The team headed by Professor Mathias Heikenwälder of the Institute for Virology at the Helmholtz Zentrum München contributed to both studies.

In collaboration with the University Hospital Zurich and the Singapore Immunology Network, he developed a method enabling individual predictions to be made in the very early stages of cancer as to how aggressive a patient's hepatocellular carcinoma will be. Immune cells infiltrate early-stage tumours and leave their signature there. Scientists use this pattern of chemokines* and immune markers for their prognosis.

The team headed by Professor Heikenwälder examined European samples and was able to show that the signature is universally valid. "Our findings mark an significant step towards novel approaches to apply personalised medicine," says Professor Heikenwälder. "We can now determine at a very early stage of liver cancer which therapy is particularly well suited to individual patients."

The second study, which was published on 9th of September by Nature, shows for the first time that it is the immune cells – or to be more precise, the T helper cells, monocytes and macrophages – that remove the precursor cells of the hepatocellular carcinoma from the body. "In case we could determine how to strengthen this immune reaction, we probably will be able to develop new treatment options," Professor Heikenwälder adds. During this study he worked, amongst others, with Professor Lars Zender of the Helmholtz Zentrum München for Infection Research in Brunswick.

Cancer is a widespread disease and is the leading cause of death worldwide. One third of cancer sufferers, or 800,000 people worldwide, die of liver cancer every year. The objective of the Helmholtz Zentrum München is to understand the mechanisms that cause common diseases and to develop new approaches with regard to their diagnosis, therapy and prevention.


Source: German Research Centre for Environmental Health