Fundamental research in immuno-oncology

October 22nd 2018

Immunotherapy is increasingly used to treat cancer patients, yet immuno-oncology is still in its infancy. A number of immunological mechanisms are still poorly understood, or even unknown.

The Nobel prize for Medicine has just been awarded to two researchers in immuno-oncology (IO). James Allison (USA) has enlightened the role of protein CTLA-4, which inhibits the response to T cells against tumour cells, while Tasuku Honjo (Japan) has identified the PD-1 receptor present on T cells. These discoveries have enabled the development of ipilimumab and nivolumab, the first members of the now-famous immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) family of molecules.

An urgent need for fundamental research
In just a few years, ICIs have revolutionised treatment for certain cancers, while also paving the way to many new research projects in IO across the world. ‘We still have much to learn’, reminds professor Stanislas Goriely, FNRS senior research associate at ULB's Institute for Medical Immunology (IMI-ULB). ‘There are many mechanisms that still need to be identified or elucidated. ICIs do not work on all patients(1) and, to be quite honest, we're not sure why they work when they do! Treatment is very expensive and can produce severe auto-immune secondary effects, especially when multiple treatments are combined. Physicians need answers to their questions, which is why fundamental research in immunology is paramount.

Immunology at ULB
A number of research teams at ULB are working on immunology in the broader sense. ‘For instance, my group is studying the relationship between the appearance and development of tumours on one hand, and the inflammatory response(2) on the other hand,’ explains professor Goriely. ‘Other researchers are working on immunological memory, or on the tumour microenvironment. Others yet are experts on Treg cells, which regulate the immune response. Professor Muriel Moser, dean of the Faculty of Sciences, is attempting to understand how chemotherapy agents produce antitumor effects by activating the immune system. Lastly, we have a number of laboratories working on allergology or infectiology, as well as specialists of autoimmune diseases who, while not doing oncology work, are working on issues related to immunology.’

Towards more synergies
In 2017, ULB created an interfaculty institute of immunology whose goal is to develop contacts and projects between the University's various laboratories. ‘We are looking to concentrate fundamental research in immunology in the Biopark, where fifty researchers are already working in this field,’ explains professor Goriely. ‘At the same time, we wish to engage more with clinicians on the Erasme campus and the Jules Bordet Institute, in order to develop translational research on IO.’

(1) Depending on the type of cancer, the overall response rate is between 15% and 60%. Complete responses also exist, but they are a minority of cases.
(2) As a reminder, all cancers have an inflammatory component.