Immunology revolutionizes cancer therapy
Fighting cold viruses is an easy exercise for our immune system. It reaches its limits in cancer. Immunologists all over the world and also in Regensburg are therefore working on innovative immune therapies that support the immune system in destroying tumors. International Immunology Day highlights the power of the immune system on 29. April into the focus of the public.
The body’s immune system is our most powerful weapon against disease. From the common cold to cancer, the immune system has the power to heal. It seems only logical that immunology, the study of the immune system, has produced some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time. This includes the concept of vaccination, where the immune system learns how to fight off life-threatening pathogens.
“For some years now, we have been experiencing a breakthrough in cancer research that could have a similar impact on the health of the population as vaccinations,” makes Professor Dr. Philipp Beckhove, director of the Regensburg Center for Interventional Immunology (RCI), explains. For example, after decades of international research, immunologists have found mechanisms by which the body’s immune system can recognize and destroy malignant tumors.
“These discoveries are currently leading to the development of new immunotherapies against cancer. For the first time, even advanced tumors can be successfully treated and controlled in the long term,” says Professor Beckhove, giving an insight into the possibilities of immunology. Since tumors protect themselves from the immune system not only with one, but with many mechanisms, some of which have not yet been researched, immunotherapy has so far only been able to effectively treat a small proportion of cancer cases.
© UKR/Klaus Völcker
Long immunology tradition in Regensburg
In Germany, Regensburg is one of the lighthouses in interventional immunology. Scientists at the University Hospital Regensburg (UKR) and RCI are at the forefront of research and development of new immunotherapy approaches against cancer. As an RCI facility, the José Carreras Center for Somatic Cell Therapy (JCC) specializes in the production of cell therapeutics and advanced therapy medicinal products.
Immunologists at these three institutions focus on the most effective immune cells, T lymphocytes. These white blood cells can recognize and destroy tumor cells, earning them the nickname T-killer cells.
“We want to use genetic manipulations to enable T lymphocytes to recognize tumor cells even better than before,” explains Professor Dr. Wolfgang Herr, Director of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Internal Medicine III of the UKR and spokesman of the Collaborative Research Center Transregio 221 on immune cell therapy of the German Research Foundation.
The first clinical study in Germany on a new approach to cancer immunotherapy with manipulated T cells was recently started under the leadership of his clinic.
“In the future, immune cell therapy will enable us to specifically produce killer T cells against different tumor diseases, something that has hardly been possible with other immunotherapeutics so far,” continues Professor Dr. Matthias Edinger, head of the José Carreras Center for Somatic Cell Therapy, from. Cellular drug production takes place in the state-of-the-art clean rooms of the JCC at the University Hospital Regensburg.
In cooperation with biotechnology companies, new cell sorting technologies have recently been developed at the JCC that, for the first time worldwide, enable the targeted isolation of rare immune cell subpopulations and are already being successfully used in initial clinical trials for the treatment of transplant complications.
© UKR/Klaus Völcker
RCI programs the body’s own cells against cancer
The successes of Regensburg immunology are now to be systematically developed and expanded with the help of the Regensburg Center for Interventional Immunology. “At the RCI, we are investigating what capabilities an immune cell needs to have in order to effectively repel cancer cells, and then specifically equipping it with them,” explains Professor Beckhove.
The RCI bundles immunological expertise in the field of tumor immune defense, autoimmunity and transplantation medicine and translates basic immunological research into state-of-the-art immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer and immunological rejection reactions, which are then directly applied in clinical practice at the UKR. For this purpose, internationally renowned scientists could be recruited to the RCI. Two new professorships for genetic and functional immune cell manipulation are to be filled this year.
“In the future, immunotherapy will not only enable us to effectively fight cancer, but will also be able to treat undesired immune reactions, such as autoimmune diseases” outlines Professor Dr. Markus Feuerer, Chair of Immunology at RCI, his vision for immunomedical patient care.
Regensburg becomes immunology research location of international importance
The Bavarian state government supports the ambitious path of Regensburg’s immunomedicine not only through a new institute building for the RCI at Regensburg University Hospital, the topping-out ceremony for which was celebrated in March of this year, but also through the commitment of the new Bavarian Minister President to transform the RCI into a non-university research institute and to transfer it to the Leibniz Association in the medium term.
“This gives us the necessary resources and long-term security to develop the RCI into a research center of international importance,” Professor Beckhove is pleased to say.