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International experts will meet at CNIO to analyse how to improve the success of immunotherapy


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The next CNIO – “la Caixa” Frontiers Meeting will take place from 9 to 11 July

Participants will tackle a range of subjects, from core research aspects to clinical trials with new strategies designed to enable immune cells to attach to and attack tumours

Over the past decade it has become clear that one effective strategy to fight cancer involves activating the body’s own natural defences so that they can recognise tumour cells as enemies and attack them. Immunotherapy is achieving very significant survival rates in highly aggressive tumours, such as melanoma. However, it is far from being a panacea; there are still many patients who do not respond to immunotherapy, and it does not work on certain tumours, such as pancreatic tumours. Next week, some of the world’s leading experts in the field of tumour immunology that studies the relationship between the immune system and cancer will be coming together at CNIO, at one of the prestigious CNIO–“la Caixa” Frontiers Meetings.

The congress, entitled ‘Frontiers in Immunomodulation and Cancer Therapy’, will take place from 9 to 11 July. Participants will tackle a range of subjects, from core research aspects to clinical trials with new strategies designed to enable immune cells to attach to and attack tumours. The aim is to increase the types of tumours against which this strategy can be effective, as well as the numbers of patients who may benefit from immunotherapy

The challenge is complex: “The immune system has the capacity to recognise and eliminate tumour cells, but tumours can also evade the immune system, generating a microenvironment in which defences are weakened, so that the tumour becomes resistant to immunotherapy”, explain the organisers, including two researchers from CNIO, Nabil Djouder, head of the Growth Factors, Nutrients and Cancer Group, and Marisol Soengas, head of the Melanoma Group

Participants in the congress will analyse the mechanisms responsible for the failure of certain tumours, such as pancreatic, prostate or ovarian tumours, to respond to immunotherapy, either because they are invisible to the immune system, or because they become resistant to attack. 

They will also explore factors that might be responsible for the fact that only some patients respond to immunotherapy. Some of those factors are genetic, such as the proteins known as immune checkpoint inhibitors, which are the target for the most widespread and successful form of immunotherapy today. Researchers are looking for more proteins of this kind, on which to base more effective immunotherapeutic drugs. They are also looking for biomarkers capable of identifying as quickly as possible which patients might benefit from these therapies and which ones will not. 

“It is a Frontiers congress, which means we will be tackling what is happening at the very frontier of what we know”, said Soengas. “Great strides have been made, but we have to go even further in terms of mechanisms of action and new therapeutic targets”.

“Immunotherapy is a very encouraging strategy”, said Djouder, “it is highly effective against some types of cancer and on some patients, but it is highly costly and has side effects. We need to continue investigating to determine who might benefit from the treatment and who will not”.

The power of microbiome

One of the most recent and striking findings in this area is the confirmation that there are other non-genetic factors that also contribute to the success – or failure – of immunotherapy, such as the microbiome. The dozens of types of microorganisms present naturally in the intestine, the mouth or the skin play an important role in modulating the immune system, activating defences against tumours or not

It is an area in which Thomas Gajewski and Yasmine Belkaid, who will respectively open and close the congress, are experts. Gajewski heads the Immunology and Cancer programme at the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center (USA). He is researching new therapies against melanoma based on activating the immune system. In 2015, his group showed that a certain strain of gut bacteria in mice could stimulate the immune system to attack tumour cells. 

Belkaid, a researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, is pioneering research into the relationship between microbiome and the immune system. Her work has demonstrated among other things that commensal microorganisms in the gut and on the skin play a key role in controlling the host’s defences, and that diet also influences this relationship. 

At this congress, the best animal models – which are closest to human pathology – will also be presented. Ton Schumacher, lead researcher at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, and Marcus W. Bosenberg, an expert in melanoma at Yale University (USA), will be talking about these models. 

Finally, Alberto Mantovani, the immunologist who discovered that inflammation – a process that involves the activation of the immune system – is an important ingredient in the environment where a tumour develops, will also participate in the congress. The link between inflammation and cancer has been one of the most active areas of study in recent years.

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