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NKI-AVL and LUMC are joining forces in immunotherapy

Strengthening a cancer patient's own immune system so that the body itself can better destroy cancer cells. This is at the heart of immunotherapy, the most promising progress in cancer treatment in recent years. In order to drive this development further, the Netherlands Cancer Institute-Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (NKI-AVL) and the LUMC are joining forces.

Large tumours in the head and neck that diminish or even disappear altogether after immunotherapy. John Haanen – medical oncologist and immunologist at the NKI-AVL– talks about a new drug for immunotherapy. In the NKI-AVL, a group of 32 patients were administered the drug intravenously over a period of five weeks. Haanen: "In almost four out of ten patients, the result was astonishing." 

Prof Jannie Borst (LUMC) and Prof John Haanen (NKI-AVL) Jannie Borst – head of the Department of Immunohematology and Blood Transfusion at LUMC – adds: "When a tumour shrinks or even disappears, drastic surgery is prevented. Think of a tongue that doesn't need to be cut away or a jaw that can remain intact."

The effect of new drugs for immunotherapy was one of the topics at a symposium organised last February by Borst and Haanen. The symposium was the starting signal for far-reaching cooperation between the AVL and LUMC in the field of immunotherapy. More than a hundred doctors and researchers from both institutes came together in a well-filled meeting room. Haanen: "Hearing some of the research results, you felt the enthusiasm galvanising the room." 

Better and more targeted therapies

With the exchange of knowledge and joint research, Haanen and Borst want to achieve better and more targeted treatments for patients. Borst (LUMC): "The NKI-AVL is, of course, a cancer clinic and research institute. They treat more people using advanced immunotherapy than LUMC. As a result, they have special tumour tissue and blood samples from cancer patients that can be used for ground-breaking research." 

Haanen (NKI-AVL) responds: "Before we treat a patient using neoadjuvant immunotherapy at the NKI-AVL, we take a biopsy. We extract a piece of tissue from the tumour. After the immunotherapy, all patients are operated on and we can measure exactly how well the immunotherapy has worked by comparing the tumour tissue before and after the treatment." 

Think tank

A number of advanced LUMC techniques will be very beneficial in the near future, according to Haanen. "We can then measure and analyse the changes in tumour tissue even better." Borst: "Of course, the NKI-AVL has interesting analysis techniques. But together we know more and can do more." 

According to both, the cooperation will take more and more shape in the coming months. Borst: "We would like to see spontaneous initiatives between the NKI-AVL and LUMC emerge, but we would also like to offer guidance at a senior level. That's why a think tank has been set up with staff from both institutes." This is acknowledged by Hendrik Veelken, chair of the LUMC Oncology Centre (LOC): "Cancer immunotherapy is one of the spearheads of the LOC. It is great to see that this initiative was taken between LUMC and NKI-AVL; there are enormous opportunities in this cooperation." 

Other diseases

Cooperation can also benefit from LUMC departments' research into other diseases involving the immune system. Borst: "In the case of rheumatism, for example, the patient's own immune system attacks the body. You have to slow down the immune system, while you have to reinforce it in cancer patients. But the mechanism behind it is similar; they are two sides of the same coin. We would like to exchange knowledge with each other in order to better understand the processes in the immune system." 

But the main line of cooperation is about immunotherapy in cancer, emphasise Borst and Haanen. "On both the NKI-AVL and LUMC sides, we have more than enough on our hands. And now together, fortunately." 

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