A welcome Ray of hope

An exciting complementary approach to cancer takes advantage of an ingenious natural defense: our own immune system.

Despite intense research and increasingly effective treatment options, 1 in 3 of us will receive a dreaded cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives. Longer lifespans and lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, smoking, and obesity all contribute to this global trend. What’s more, every cancer is unique and some types prove harder to tackle than others. Fortunately, scientists around the world have risen to the challenge and, after decades of research and development, have introduced a groundbreaking approach that may help more patients.

From Surgery to Targeted Treatment: the (r)Evolution of Cancer Therapy

While most of us know that many of our early ancestors suffered from several deadly diseases, it may come as a surprise that forensic anthropologists have also found evidence of cancer in human fossils. And although advances in hygiene, nutrition, and medicine have improved the life expectancy of most people around the world, cancer rates have also increased and show no signs of slowing down, despite impressive advances in science and medicine.

We certainly appreciate all the breakthroughs achieved since the days of medical pioneers like Papyrus, Hippocrates, or Galen who described cancer as a crab-like growth or “karkinos” and believed that a single surgery could cure the disease. Cancer patients had to wait until the 20th century for other treatment options, like radiation and chemotherapy, to emerge. And although these options can target and kill cancerous tissue, they also harm healthy cells - often with serious side effects.

Now that researchers are discovering what drives and differentiates various cancers at the molecular level – how these cells grow, divide, or die – they have opened the door to hormonal and targeted cancer therapies. This approach takes advantage of cancer’s fundamental genetic differences and provides more personalized options. Targeted therapy is now joined by an exciting complementary approach that harnesses the strengths of our body’s own, ingenious defense mechanism – the immune system. We call this immuno-oncology.    

A man and a woman alongside a gene, which is intertwined with a measuring tape A man and a woman alongside a gene, which is intertwined with a measuring tape

Helping the body help itself

The core idea behind immuno-oncology is based on a game-changing principle: instead of relying on external factors to kill cancer cells, immuno-oncology (IO) attacks cancer by taking advantage of the body’s built in defenses. Since cancer cells can avoid detection by disguising themselves as normal and healthy cells, IO treatments help the immune system recognize, target, and destroy tumor cells where they occur. Some IO approaches deactivate potential “brakes” that prevent immune cells from attacking the cancer by using antibodies that block these “brakes.” In another approach, medical technicians can remove and culture immune cells in immune-activating factors (or genetically engineer them to express a tumor-specific receptor), then return the cells to the patient’s body to target cancerous cells.

While recent advances have identified IO as a promising approach in cancer therapy, the idea behind immuno-oncology actually dates back to the 18th century. Doctors would deliberately infect tumors with bacteria in an attempt to trigger an immune response. Over the decades, curious scientists steadily built on milestones in vaccination, antigen research, and immune therapy to lay the groundwork for more individual and less-invasive cancer treatment options. Finally, after years of thorough basic science and clinical research, 2011 marked a key medical milestone when the first IO drug was approved for use on advanced malignant melanomas, adding another option to the spectrum of available treatments.    

 A man and a woman looking for cancer cells without fear.  A man and a woman looking for cancer cells without fear.

The Perfect Match: Combination Therapies

Since then, immuno-oncology has developed rapidly. We are currently developing IO therapies for a number of severe, hard-to-treat cancers thanks to our strong expertise in immunology and oncology. New research shifts the focus not only from the cancer cells, but also to their microenvironment (the immediate area around the cell) which affects the tumor’s growth. These are important times for scientists, oncologists, and patients alike, but it is worth bearing in mind that despite the potential of IO therapies, this is no one-size-fits-all approach. It is still a vital addition to the treatment spectrum nonetheless. 

This is where sophisticated data analytics come in: the more we understand the relationship between specific immune system markers and cancer types, the greater the potential for effective treatments. To help pinpoint meaningful patterns and determine more effective options, we are partnering with others in the industry to develop a high-performance data and analysis platform. And since new immuno-oncology drugs requires input from experts from many different fields, we do all this in close collaboration with leading pharmaceutical and data partners. 

Our ultimate goal is to reimagine cancer care through the advance of immuno-oncology and other exciting new approaches. The great hope is that when future patients receive the dreaded cancer diagnosis, there will be a lot less to fear. 

A future where new approaches use your own immune cells to help defeat cancer?

We can imagine it. Can you?

Always Curious: Celebrating 350 Years of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

As we look to the future, we can only imagine what the next 350 years have in store for us …