Better immunotherapy for cancer patients

Friday 14 Jul 17


Lars Rønn Olsen
Groupleader, Associate Professor
DTU Health Tech
+45 45 25 24 25

About immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment method which activates the immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells in different ways.

Researchers are working to develop immunotherapy to become an effective alternative to chemotherapy.

Simply put, the most widespread types of immunotherapy work in one of two ways. One is to strengthen the immune system’s ability to recognize and attack specific cancer cells. The other is to weaken the cancer cells’ ability to escape the immune system in general. There are many different types of immunotherapy.

Does immunotherapy work better in cancer patients who, for example, have had influenza? This will be studied in a research project at Herlev Hospital involving DTU.

Immunotherapy is about activating the body’s own immune system to kill, e.g., cancer cells. The method is already used today in the treatment of melanomas with good results. For the next two years, a team of researchers from DTU, Lund, and doctors from Herlev Hospital will examine whether the immunotherapy will be more effective in cancer patients who have previously had infections with common pathogens such as influenza. The project has just received DKK 1.6 million in funding from the Danish Cancer Society.

“We would like to find out whether patients who have previously had, for example, an influenza infection—which their immune system was able to fight off—have a better chance that their immune cells will kill the cancer cells. Assuming, of course, that the changes in the cancer cells resemble those of the influenza,” explains Assistant Professor Lars Rønn from DTU Bioinformatics, who is one of the researchers involved.

Immune system must be able to recognize cancer cells
Immunotherapy works, among other things, by removing the natural and cancer-induced blockings in the immune system and releasing activity in the immune system, which is otherwise blocked. For the immune system to be able to distinguish between the diseased and the healthy cells, there must be a physical-chemical difference between the cancer cells and the healthy cells which the immune cells can recognize. And to tailor the treatment in the best possible way, it is important to know which changes at cell level the immune system is most likely to recognize. If the immune system has already fought off one influenza infection, which—at protein level—has similarities with the cancer, the immune cells may be in a better position to recognize and destroy the cancer cells.

DTU’s Computerome to process data
The researchers want to study a large amount of patient data about both healthy and diseased cells. The data will be processed in DTU’s supercomputer Computerome.

“Using Computerome, we will segment cell data from a large population of Danish cancer patients. We will compare, e.g., proteins (epitopes) in cancer cells with proteins in influenza, but also with other viruses and bacteria with which Danes will usually come into contact during their life. If we can find the substance which the immune system has already been trained to recognize, we will know more about the extent to which a patient will benefit from immunotherapy,” explains Lars.

Effective treatment and personalized medicine
The aim is to improve the immunotherapy and only deliver it to the patients whose immune cells actually respond. Another long-term goal is to be able to use the knowledge acquired about the individual person’s immune system for developing personalized medicine specifically designed for the individual patient’s immune cells.