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‘The immune system is a double-edged sword’

With cancer, the immune system is a double-edged sword: it can attack tumour cells, but can also help them grow and spread. It is a question of harnessing it. This is what Professor Karin de Visser argued in her inaugural lecture on 15 November 2019.

Immunotherapy has become the buzzword in cancer treatment over the last few years. It involves encouraging the immune system to fight tumour cells. However, De Visser warns, the immune system also has a dark side that actually helps tumours. This is because tumours are able to hijack immune cells, thus helping cancer cells grow and spread.

De Visser was appointed as Professor by Special Appointment in Experimental Immunobiology of Cancer, specifically of the tumour micro-environment, as of 1 April 2019, on behalf of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek/The Netherlands Cancer Institute.

Effective weapon

Harnessing the immune system to move to the light side and away from helping tumour cells is the aim of De Visser’s research. ‘If we can harness the immune system, we will have an effective weapon against cancer. Ideally, this would consist of, on the one hand, stimulating those immune cells that can kill cancer cells and, on the other, inhibiting or modifying the immune cells that are hijacked by cancer cells.’

Genetic code

De Visser believes that more knowledge is needed about how best to do this. She is trying to answer questions such as: how do cancer cells outwit the immune system? ‘We know that in the case of breast cancer, this is related to the genetic code of the tumour cells. What happens in the cancer cell determines how the immune system responds. I hope to find out more about this in future and to use this knowledge for immunotherapy that is tailored to the individual.’

In her lecture, De Visser also seized the opportunity to champion the cause of fundamental research. ‘Without years of fundamental research into the immune system and cancer cells, there would never have been immunotherapy. We must therefore continue to invest in fundamental research so that we can ultimately improve cancer treatment.’

Read the full text of the inaugural lecture: ‘The immune system: a double-edged sword that needs harnessing.’ [In Dutch]

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