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How the immune system fights cancer

The promise of immuno-oncology


The immune system is your body’s defense mechanism: it reacts to eliminate pathogens or abnormal cells, including cancer cells, usually protecting the body from their harmful effects. However, in some cases, cancer cells can escape detection and form tumors. If a patient develops a tumor, this can weaken their immune response. However, did you know that the body’s own immune system can actually be mobilized to fight cancer?

What is immuno-oncology?

Cancer cells arise every day, typically as a result of a genetic predisposition or environmental influences, but they are usually eliminated by the immune system. However, in some cases, the malignant cells can disguise themselves, evading the immune response and can then develop into tumors. Immuno-oncology is an innovative area of cancer research that looks into how the immune system can be supported to fight cancer from within, by re-activating the body’s immune response against the tumor. Immuno-oncology drugs seek to uncloak cancer cells that have evaded the body’s usual immune response so that the immune system can then destroy them.

“Immuno-oncology has fundamentally changed the way cancer is being treated today. Activating the power of the immune system has been successful in treating a growing number of cancer indications. The remarkable and durable responses observed have certainly made a real difference to the lives of many patients.”
Bertolt Kreft, Head of Immuno-oncology Research at Bayer

How does immuno-oncology work?

Any productive immune response in the body is followed by a suppressive counter response which is characterized by the expression of so-called “immune checkpoint” receptors or the attraction of regulatory immune cells . This counter response prevents excessive inflammation and tissue damage once an infection has been cleared from the body. However, tumors can harness this mechanism to protect themselves against destruction by the immune system.

Scientists have identified a first generation of immune-checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) that have been approved to treat certain types of cancer. These ICIs target immune checkpoints and reactivate the immune system to find and destroy tumor cells.
However, only 30 percent of patients have responded to the first generation of ICIs; indicating that there is still significant potential for future treatment strategies in this field. We collaborate with scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), and others, to improve the anti-tumor response and find new treatment options for patients.

“It is a great experience to see the interaction of bright and dedicated expert scientists from academia and industry in the Bayer-DKFZ alliance. It has allowed us to translate basic biology findings into treatment modalities, which are now moving toward clinical application in an astonishingly short period of time.”
Professor Michael Platten, Group Leader in Neuroimmunology and Brain Tumor Immunology at the DKFZ