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Putting the pieces together: a jigsaw puzzle approach to treating cancer


Delegates at the European Cancer Congress in Vienna heard Professor Kevin Harrington talk on putting together the pieces of the puzzle – radiotherapy, immunotherapy and viral therapy – for each individual patient.

Posted on 09 October, 2015 by Eva Sharpe

I was lucky enough to attend last week’sEuropean Cancer Congress in Vienna, where nearly 20,000 researchers, oncologists, radiologists, policy makers and patients came together to talk about the latest in cancer research and treatment.

It was a packed programme and with 12 parallel sessions, not possible to see everything by a long way, but I did attend several of the talks from researchers here at The Institute of Cancer Research. One of the highlights was an interesting talk on combining radiotherapy with other treatments, including immunotherapy, which was delivered by Professor Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies here at the ICR.

It was a topic I didn't know much about and I was fascinated to learn that you can use radiotherapy to sensitise tumours to immunotherapy. I heard that for decades we used to think that radiotherapy had its main impact on cancer cells directly, but that more recently we have learned that it can also prime the tumour for immune treatments by making cancer cells more susceptible to the effects of the immune system. Professor Harrington even explained that radiotherapy could be described as a form of immunotherapy as it activates an immune response as well as causing cell death.

Professor Harrington's talk was in a session which explored this concept of combining radiotherapy with other treatments from several angles. Two speakers, Dr Sandra Demaria and Professor Philipp Beckhove, focused their talks on the molecular changes which occur in cells treated with radiotherapy and how this can affect the response to later treatments.

Professor Harrington went on to talk about his work combining radiotherapy with viral therapy. He presented some of his clinical data from trials, in particular one where he had used a genetically engineered herpes virus to halt the progression of skin cancer by killing cancer cells and sparking the immune system into action.

The next steps will be looking at adding further agents into the combinations, such as immunotherapy agents. Checkpoint inhibitors – which use antibody-mimicking compounds targeting the cancer cells to produce an immune reaction – are showing promise in the clinic.

He described investigating these different treatment combinations as almost like a jigsaw puzzle, where you have the pieces – radiotherapy, immunotherapy and viral therapies – and you have to find the best way of fitting them together for each patient. And all without the help of a picture on the front cover!

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