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New Technologies Changing The Way Cancer Is Treated

New approaches to tame the immune system in the fight against cancer are getting us closer to a future where cancer becomes a curable disease. We spoke with experts in the field to gather a realistic overview of the potential of four of these promising new cancer treatments.

Curing cancer is certainly one of the big challenges of the 21st century. Our knowledge of the mechanisms behind cancer has greatly improved in the last two decades. This has revealed the huge variability that can be found between not only different types of cancer, but also between patients with the same type of cancer.

It seems increasingly evident that the solution won’t be a single ‘cure for cancer’. Rather, each patient will be treated accordingly to their specific needs. For personalized medicine to become a reality, we need a range of therapies wide enough to cover the whole spectrum of cancer.

Making unique cancer vaccines

Cancer is caused by mutations that transform healthy cells into tumor cells. These mutations are often at the center of new therapies for cancer, but they can be very different in each tumor.

“Mutations are random. If you look at one patient’s tumor and compare it to another patient’s, it would be highly unlikely that there will be a match,” Sean Marett, CBO and CCO of German immuno-oncology company BioNTech, told me. BioNTech is developing therapeutic vaccines that are created for each individual tumor. “Each patient gets a tailor-made product just for them,” says Marett.

By comparing the DNA sequences of the tumor and of healthy cells, the company can identify multiple cancer mutations and select the ones that are more likely to provoke a strong reaction from the immune system. The vaccines are given in the form of messenger RNA, a molecule that gives cells the instructions to create a particular protein, in this case a cancer antigen — unlike with gene editing, the vaccines do not directly edit human DNA, but just provide the message.

Another advantage is that the production of messenger RNA is cheaper than that of other new cancer technologies such as cell therapy.

Guiding immune cells to attack

Last year, the first cell therapies for cancer were approved. The technology, called CAR-T cell therapy, consists in taking immune T-cells from the patient, engineering them to target a specific antigen, and injecting them back.

“CAR-T is changing the treatment paradigm for cancer by creating targeted treatments that are specific to cancer cells,” says Christian Homsy, CEO at Celyad, a Belgian CAR-T company. “Our goal is to develop precise, targeted treatments that eradicate disease while sparing healthy tissue, and in doing so, improving patient lives.”

Indeed, CAR-T clinical trials have shown impressive results in patients that relapse and have exhausted other treatment options. However, the technology has also shown some strong side effects and led to some patient deaths.

“With the potency of CAR-T, what you want to absolutely ensure is that the target antigen is not expressed on normal tissue, because if it is you can really wipe out organs and potentially severely handicap or even kill the patient,” said Marett.

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