Bridging the gap between immunology and cancer

How VIB researchers innovate together 

Allen F. Repko, former director of the interdisciplinary studies program at the University of Texas, said it best: Our disciplines are where we begin, but not where we end. These words resonate strongly in the field of immuno-oncology. Recent breakthroughs in cancer research often found their roots in immunological findings. The disciplines of cancer biology and immunology seem to be more interwoven than we could have imagined a few decades ago. At VIB, researchers in both disciplines join hands in solving the complex puzzle that is cancer. As a preview to our #ImmunoOnco24 Conference in Antwerp, we want to highlight some of this research. 

In our recent double interview with Max Mazzone from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology and Karin de Visser from the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Oncode Institute, they talked vividly about the importance of collaborations between scientists in different fields. ​ “Cancer is too challenging to solve individually. We will need collaborations with people in different fields,” said Karin. “The tumor microenvironment (TME) is a great example of this”. ​ Let’s have a look at VIB research happening at the intersection between cancer and immunology. ​ 

The tumor microenvironment 

To understand and treat cancer, we need to look beyond just the cancer cells. Tumors are embedded in a complex environment of tissues, blood vessels, and surrounding cells. This so-called tumor microenvironment influences the growth and metastasis of tumors, as well as the cancer’s response to treatment. The lab of Max Mazzone, for example, studies how to fight tumors by helping immune cells overcome ‘starvation’ so that they can better respond to cancer and improve patients’ response to immunotherapy. ​ 

The lab of Gabriele Bergers (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) also investigates the tumor microenvironment, with a focus on the vasculature. They recently discovered the role of high-endothelial venules – very small veins – in ferrying lymphocytes to tumors, which improves the response to immunotherapy. In the same VIB center, the lab of Patrizia Agostinis focuses on the role of cell death in cancer and in designing more effective cancer therapies. For example, they recently found that inhibiting autophagy in the endothelial cells lining tumor blood vessels can inflame them and evoke an antitumor immune response. This could provide an additional strategy to help sensitize patients to immunotherapy. 

Beyond the microenvironment and into the metastatic ecosystem 

One of our newest research groups, the lab of Jan Remsik (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology), focuses on cancer cells that spread to anatomical spaces filled with fluids, for example, the tissue between the brain and the spinal cord (leptomeninges) or around the abdominal organs (peritoneum). Patients who show metastasis to these distant organs have a notoriously poor prognosis and limited treatment options. The Remsik lab wants to uncover the main actors of the immune system who play a role in the spreading of cancer cells. The ultimate goal is to reprogram the patient’s own immune system into an active recognition system against metastatic cancer 

Vaccines and a (double) Grand Challenge 

Meanwhile, in the VIB Center for Inflammation research in Brussels, the lab of Damya Laoui focuses on immune cells called dendritic cells to develop therapies against tumor progression, tumor relapse, and metastasis. By using tumor-derived dendritic cells, the team hopes to develop a therapeutic vaccine that can prevent cancer relapse by acting as an immunological memory. The lab of Jo Van Ginderachter focuses on myeloid cells in particular tumors (tumor-associated macrophages, myeloid-derived suppressor cells, and dendritic cells). They aim to identify markers for different tumor-associated macrophages, dendritic cell populations, and more. 

Finally, the VIB Grand Challenges Program includes the Pointillism project, led by Diether Lambrechts and Chris Marine (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) and colleagues from KU Leuven and UZ Leuven. With this project, the researchers pioneered single-cell multi-omics profiling to get a view of unprecedented resolution on tumors and their cells. This can lead to the identification of biomarkers that can predict who will (not) respond to different types of immunotherapy. The project has recently been renewed as Pointillism 2.0 to expand and validate biomarkers of the previous project, both individually and combined into a high-performance biomarker panel. ​This could lead to a blood test to swiftly determine which cancer patients will respond well to immunotherapy, which results in optimal care and a reduction in unnecessary interventions. ​ ​ 

A broader view 

While many VIB researchers stand with both feet in the field of immunooncology, other labs have a different main focus but still share some common ground with this topic. At the ​ VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation research, the lab of Savvides Savvas works on the structural biology of immunity, inflammation, and cancer as well. The lab of Rudi Beyaert focuses on Paracaspase signaling in immune cell activation, a pathway also involved in cancer. The lab of Peter Vandenabeele looks into cell death modalities and their involvement in skin and intestinal inflammation and cancer. Finally, the lab of Peter Carmeliet at VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology focuses, amongst other things, on angiogenesis and cancer, and endothelial immunity therapies. 

Max Mazzone, Patrizia Agostinis, and Gabriele Bergers are part of the organizing for the second edition of ‘Recent Insights into Immuno-Oncology’, a VIB conference that will take place in Antwerp, May 30-31. #ImmunoOnco24 brings together international experts to present the latest research in immunotherapy and chart a route ahead. ​ 

Steve Bers

Steve Bers

Science Communications Expert, VIB

About the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research

Inflammation is your body’s response to infection or injury. Normally this is a good defense mechanism. But if something goes wrong with the way this mechanism is controlled, it may result in diseases such as asthma, Crohn's disease or rheumatoid arthritis. The VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research investigates the mechanisms that underlie these diseases, they can develop new treatments and improve existing therapies.

About the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology

Cancer has many causes. Often it is a combination of lifestyle, environmental factors and genetic variation. We need to fight cancer on many fronts, and this can only be done by using knowledge. The VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology researchers unravel new mechanisms in order to develop both specific diagnostic methods and treatments.


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