Immunologist Ton Schumacher wins NWO Stevin Prize
Ton Schumacher, professor by special appointment in Immunotechnology at the LUMC and group leader of Molecular Oncology and Immunology at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, has been awarded the NWO Stevin Prize. The Stevin Prize and the Spinoza Prize are the top scientific prizes in the Netherlands and are awarded to researchers whose work has a major impact in society. The winners of the two awards are announced simultaneously.
Ton Schumacher unraveled one of the fundamental prerequisites for cancer immunotherapy and works closely with clinical researchers to bring immunotherapy to patients. He has also set up a number of spin-off companies to ensure that the therapies he devises will actually be developed further. Schumacher is also a member of Oncode, the Netherlands' virtual institute for cancer research.
How does the immune system work? This was the question that fascinated Schumacher when he was a young researcher. 'Originally, I was motivated purely by scientific curiosity,' he says. But over the years he has felt an increasingly urgent need to make sure that the knowledge he gained was put to good use.
His early work, in the 1990s, was unrelated to cancer. 'We were looking at the immune system, specifically for cells that had been infected by a virus. At that time I had no idea that this knowledge would prove so useful. For me, immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer is a real victory for fundamental research.'
How does a T-cell know it should attack a cancer cell?
In 2018 the Nobel Prize went to two fellow pioneers of cancer immunotherapy, Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo. They wanted to know what inhibits the immune system. Schumacher's question is actually even more fundamental: how does a T-cell – a white blood cell that can switch off invaders – know that it should attack a tumour cell? What is it about the tumour cell that makes the T-cell think this cell doesn't belong here?
The key turned out to be DNA damage: the more DNA damage, the better the immune response. Cancer cells with a lot of DNA damage present protein fragments on their surface (neo-antigens) that are absent in healthy tissue. These fragments act as an alert to the T-cells. As a consequence of this process, a dormant immune response against the cancer cells is present in a lot of patients. This immune response can be amplified by immunotherapy.
Practice has proved Schumacher right. The types of cancer that have relatively high levels of DNA damage respond particularly well to immunotherapy. Melanomas (damage caused by the sun) or lung cancer (damage caused by smoking) are good examples of this.
Measuring patients' immune responses
Schumacher and his research group developed the technology to measure patients' immune responses, working in collaboration with Schumacher's LUMC colleague Huib Ovaa. Huib Ovaa passed away a month ago, at far too young an age. 'This prize is also a tribute to him,' says Schumacher.
Schumacher intends to use the award of 2.5 million euros to build an algorithm that can predict whether a T-cell will recognise cancer cells. 'We could use this knowledge to determine whether there are T-cells in the patient's blood that can recognise his or her specific type of cancer.’
Schumacher's habitat is the lab, but he works with the hospital's oncologists on a daily basis. He has set up a series of innovative clinical trials at the Netherlands Cancer Centre, together with clinical researchers John Haanen and Christian Blank. ‘There is a continuous flow of information back and forth between the lab and the clinic,' he explains.
Schumacher not only applies his fundamental research in the clinic, but also brings it to the market. He has already set up four spin-off companies and a fifth is in the pipeline. Why does he think these spin-offs are important? ‘There came a time when it dawned on me that, even though the last paragraph of every scientific article says something along the lines of: ''This could have some excellent applications in...'', nobody actually takes that next step.’
Spinoza Prize for Sjaak Neefjes
As well as the Stevin Prize being awarded to Professor Ton Schumacher, there is more good news for Leiden. Professor Sjaak Neefjes, professor of Chemical Immunology at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), and head of the LUMC's Cell and Chemical Biology department, has been awarded the NWO Spinoza Prize for 2020.
About the Spinoza and Stevin Prizes
The Stevin Prize is the highest distinction in science for researchers or a team of two to three researchers in the Netherlands who have been particularly successful at leveraging scientific knowledge for the benefit of society. NWO awards a maximum of two prizes every year.
The NWO Spinoza Prize is a personal award for leading researchers in the Netherlands who have an eminent international reputation. NWO awards Spinoza prizes every year to three or four researchers who are recognised internationally as being at the very top of their field.
The Spinoza and Stevin winners each receive an award of 2.5 million euros for scientific research and/or activities related to knowledge exploitation.
Credits: NWO, photography Studio Oostrum Hollandse Hoogte