Fighting a malignant tumor with the human immune system: Leaps by Bayer is supporting this approach by investing in immunotherapy company Triumvira. Scientists from Triumvira are researching how the body’s defense mechanisms can be targeted specifically at cancer cells. How does this work? And what does this mean for patients? We asked Dr. Jürgen Eckhardt, medical doctor and the head of Leaps by Bayer.
1. Dr. Eckhardt, “Leaps by Bayer” has taken on ten of the biggest challenges in the fields of health and agriculture. One of those is to cure cancer in the future. What makes you so confident that this vision can become a reality?
“Leaps by Bayer” stands for advances in life sciences that equate to a paradigm shift. What that means is we invest in groundbreaking technologies that have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people for the better. This mission requires a completely new, long-term approach that goes beyond conventional boundaries. We need investments, a willingness to take risks and confidence on a whole new scale if we are to take on these ten challenges with partners.
When I was studying medicine in the 1980s, cancer immunotherapy as we know it today simply didn’t exist. In the vast majority of cases, cancer was a death sentence – unless you spotted it early enough. In modern immuno-oncology we now have a tool that has already eliminated tumors in numerous patients.
2. What role does the immune system play in the fight against cancer?
Our immune system is responsible for identifying and fighting pathogens and damaged cells in the body. It distinguishes between “own” and “foreign”. For instance, if one of our cells becomes infected by a virus, then it changes. What are known as “T-cells” in the body’s immune system identify this change, attack the cell and destroy it. That’s how we get healthy again.
Besides tackling pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, the immune system can also identify cancer cells as harmful and attack them. We know that, in every one of us, cells mutate and exhibit malignant changes on a daily basis. Usually, the immune system identifies and eliminates these cells – all without us noticing a thing.
3. So how can cancer cells sometimes evade the immune system?
Identifying tumor cells is a tricky task for the immune system. After all, cancer cells are the body’s own cells and the immune system shouldn’t normally attack the body. Some cancer cells camouflage themselves, meaning the immune system isn’t able to detect them anymore. That’s when a tumor develops, and it’s in these cases that immunotherapy comes into play. This involves trying to get the body’s defenses to kick back into action, if you like – getting them to identify malignant cells and destroy them, even when the cells have camouflaged themselves.
4. And is that exactly the approach Leaps by Bayer is pursuing by investing in Triumvira?
Correct. “Leaps by Bayer” is investing in groundbreaking technologies that have the potential to fundamentally improve life for lots of people, and these technologies include treatments to prevent and cure cancer. Triumvira is developing next-generation cancer immunotherapies. Conventional cancer therapies such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy center on the removal or destruction of cancer cells. Instead of targeting the cancer cells directly, Triumvira is focusing on the body’s own defense mechanisms – trying to get them to destroy the cancer cells. We hope this approach will enable us to treat cancers that have previously been incurable.
5. There are already approved immuno-oncological therapies. What kind of patients is immunotherapy suitable for?
We currently believe there are several hundred different types of cancer. The therapies that are already available on the market so far only work for a small number of tumors. They achieve good results primarily when used to treat blood cancers, i.e. liquid tumors, but aren’t so good at treating solid tumors, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, bowel cancer, liver cancer and so on. Animal models have indicated that the approach being pursued at Triumvira is highly promising for the treatment of solid tumors.
Besides supporting Triumvira, Leaps is also exploring other approaches and investing in various companies so we can beat cancer in the future.
6. When might the approach being developed at Triumvira be available to patients?
We’re still in the preclinical phase right now, so the approach hasn’t yet been tested in humans. The first development stages in humans and clinical studies are planned for next year, but it will certainly take another five years or so until a treatment is widely available for patients.
7. How does the therapy work?
A T-cell therapy works by isolating T-cells from the blood, modifying them and then returning the modified T-cells to the patient via an infusion. These immune cells are then able to identify cancer cells based on certain features (antigens), attack them directly and destroy them.
In the case of autologous therapies, the patient’s own T-cells are modified ex vivo, i.e. outside the body. Triumvira is also pursuing allogenic approaches, which involve administering modified T-cells from a donor. This could enable us to make T-cell therapies accessible for a larger number of patients.