Research and treatment
What is immunotherapy?
Our body’s immune system plays an important role in fighting diseases and keeping us healthy. Scientists have discovered that the immune system is able to fight cancer as well, but the immune system sometimes needs some help to do so. The Tumor Immunology Lab (TIL) of the Radboudumc has developed a vaccine which activates the immune system so that cancer cells can be killed.
The TIL performs research on a specific kind of immune cells called ‘dendritic cells’, which are essential for the proper functioning of our immune system. Dendritic cells reside in the skin and the mucous membranes and guard our body against foreign pathogens (invaders) by recognizing the pathogen and triggering an immune response. Each cell in our body, healthy or ill or foreign, has its own distinctive marks by which it can be recognized. Dendritic cells are capable to recognizing these marks and thus to react differently to different types of pathogens. If a healthy cell develops into a cancerous cell, this is visible on its surface. After recognition of a cancerous cell, the dendritic cells activates another type of immune cells, which are called T-cells, which in turn are able to identify and kill the pathogen or cancerous cell. If something goes wrong in this process, for example when the dendritic cell fails to identify the cancerous cell, this may result in cancer.
First, the dendritic cells are collected, a so-called apheresis, a special centrifuge connected to the veins of the patient.
The dendritic cells are then processed by the lab technicians of the TIL so that they can recognize the tumour-specific cancer cells, after which the cells are given back to the patient by way of a vaccination. These ‘trained’ dendritic cells are now able to identify the cancer cells and to activate the T-cells which are then able to kill the targeted cancer cells.
In addition to producing the vaccines, the TIL also performs research into the functioning of the dendritic cells. The objective is to improve the vaccine, for example by increasing the number of patients which respond to the treatment or by increasing the immune response in a patient. The TIL would also like to extend the use of the treatment method to other types of cancer, as the treatment at present is limited to a rather small number of cancer types.