Cancer immunotherapy is all about manipulation – in the very best sense of the word. Basically, immunotherapy – which is currently gaining ground in the fight against malignant melanoma, kidney cancer and lung cancer, among others – is about strengthening and activating the body’s own immune system so that it recognises and attacks cancer cells to best effect.
For instance, we can give the patient antibodies to strengthen their immune system. In other cases, doctors take some of the patient’s immune cells and then propagate and activate them in the laboratory. The ‘cocktail’ produced in this way is then injected back into the patient. The patient’s own modified immune cells will now – hopefully – destroy the cancerous tumours.
In some cases, immunotherapy works perfectly and the patient is cured. However, in others, the result is not so positive because the tumours being treated do not react to the therapy.
Marco Donia, staff oncologist and junior research group leader at Herlev Hospital’s Department of Oncology, has conducted research into cancer immunotherapy for several years. He explains that, as a Lundbeck Foundation Fellow, he will focus on a group of signaling molecules:
‘These signaling molecules are released by a particular type of immune cell (lymphocytes) found inside the tumours that we doctors are attempting to kill off in the patient. We assume that the substances released by the lymphocytes either cause the tumour to grow or help suppress it. The problem is that, at the moment, cancer research only has limited knowledge of these signal molecules and therefore can’t safely say which molecules do what. And it’s knowledge of this kind that I’ll seek to uncover in my fellowship research.’
To achieve this – and, basically, to be able to say what each of the signaling molecules do – Marco Donia will apply a number of sophisticated molecular and genome-sequencing techniques. One of these is single-cell RNA sequencing, which can identify the information contained in a single cell.
Marco Donia, 35, is Italian. He was born in Sicily and graduated in medicine from the University of Catania. He came to Denmark on an exchange programme and, since 2014, he has researched into immunotherapy at the National Center for Cancer Immune Therapy at Herlev Hospital.
Essential prerequisites for Marco Donia’s research – which includes mapping of these particular signaling molecules during his Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship – are the biobank built up over a number of years by the National Center for Cancer Immune Therapy and his close contact to the patients at Herlev Hospital.
‘Our biobank is quite unique – also worldwide – because we have a huge number of samples from patients, and each sample includes both immune cells and cancer cells. This enables us to reproduce the interaction between immune cells and cancer cells, sample by sample, and to seek to understand the special role of the signaling molecules,’ explains Marco Donia.