Boosting the immune system to defend the body against cancer

31 January 2014

Cancer immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to help fight cancer cells, has been named by Science Magazine as the “breakthrough” scientific achievement of 2013. The magazine’s editors say that even though the treatment is still in its early stages, immunotherapy is shifting the way cancer researchers are thinking about how to treat the disease, from targeting the tumour to enlisting the immune system to destroy the tumour.

The Canadian Cancer Society is funding a number of promising research projects focusing on immunotherapy, investing more than $1 million just this year. The projects include:

  • In Quebec City, Dr Yves Fradet is working to improve the effectiveness of the BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) bacteria, which can be injected into the bladder to stimulate the patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells and prevent recurrence. However, only 60% of patients respond to this therapy, so Dr Fradet is searching for new ways to prevent recurrence by improving the response rate to BCG with new immunotherapy-based compounds that trigger a stronger immune response. His research team is also developing a vaccine against markers specifically found on bladder cancer cells.
  • Some of the most promising immunotherapy uses T cells, which can be described as the commanders of the immune system leading the battle against infection. The challenges with using T cells are their short lifespan and the difficulty in tracking them to ensure they’ve reached their target. In Toronto, Dr Li Zhang and Dr Gang Zheng are refining a new nanoparticle, called a porphysome, that will overcome these obstacles related to T cells and ultimately make immunotherapies more effective.
  • Dr Brad Nelson in Victoria is pioneering a new way to treat lymphoma with the development of personalized vaccines based on the mutations found in each tumour to stimulate the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Using genomics, the researchers will first identify the mutations specific to tumour samples from lymphoma patients, determine which of those mutations are recognized by the immune system and would be effective targets for personalized vaccines, and finally, develop an accurate method for predicting which patients will benefit from this type of treatment.

The Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada thanks to our generous donors and our rigorous peer-review process. We are the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada, funding hundreds of researchers in universities, hospitals and research centres. Together we are discovering new ways to change cancer forever.

Learn more about Society-funded research. 

Contact us if you have questions about our research initiatives.