MEMBER NEWS: Researchers at UAntwerp are developing a new therapy against pancreatic and colon cancer

Scientists from the University of Antwerp are developing a new treatment against pancreatic cancer and advanced colon cancer. The two cancers are still difficult to treat, because the tumors are protected by a strong immune shield. A way has now been found to attack that shield. The new therapy has yet to be tested on humans, but the results are promising.

The outlook for patients with pancreatic cancer or advanced colorectal cancer is usually not good. The cancers are aggressive, spread quickly and treatment is often ineffective or not effective enough. With financial support from Kom op tegen Kanker, researchers from the University of Antwerp have now discovered how they can perhaps win the battle.

“These cancers have a very strong immune shield of connective tissue cells that nestle around the tumors. This makes it difficult for medicines and radiation to reach the cancer cells,” says Professor Evelien Smits of the Center for Oncological Research at the University of Antwerp.


“We have now discovered that there is a certain protein, CD70, on the outside of those connective tissue cells. And that the same protein is also on the outside of the cancer cells. So it is the ideal target to attack.”

The attack is carried out by modifying cells of the immune system in the laboratory and giving them a kind of gripping arm that recognizes the protein. That gripping arm is called CAR (chimeric antigen receptor)  This allows them to grab hold of their “prey” and attack it.

Pancreatic cancer: the risk factors and survival rates

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. Only 13 to 14 percent of patients are still alive 5 years after diagnosis (not counting other causes of death).

The number of people with pancreatic cancer is increasing. In 2021, 2,250 people in Belgium were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That’s twice as much as 15 years ago. Pancreatic cancer occurs most often from the age of 70. After age, smoking is the best known risk factor.

Fewer side effects and much cheaper

The attack technique used already exists and has already been used successfully against certain types of blood and bone marrow cancer. But the therapy is also extremely expensive and can cause serious side effects.

“T cells have so far been used in this immunotherapy,” says Professor Smits. “T cells are a type of immune cell that can destroy cancer cells, but they can also cause the immune system to go into overdrive. We can intervene and bring it back under control, but there is also a small chance that the patient will die.”

That is why the researchers use a different type of immune cells: natural killer cells. “They are potentially safer than T cells,” says cancer researcher Jonas Van Audenaerde (UAntwerp). “The first clinical studies showed hardly any side effects.”

“In addition, we can produce these cells on a large scale from the blood of healthy donors. This is in contrast to modified T cells, which are made patient by patient from the patient’s own blood.”

“This means that we can produce a large number of natural killer cells with a gripper arm at the same time, which are always immediately available to patients when they need them,” says Van Audenaerde. “This also reduces the cost per treatment.”

Colon cancer: risk factors and survival rates

The prospects for colon cancer are better. Five years after diagnosis, 70 percent of patients are still alive. Colon cancer is more common. In 2021, 7,880 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer. It is the third most common cancer in Belgium in both women and men.

Age is also the most important risk factor for colon cancer. In addition, an unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, alcohol, unhealthy food, little exercise, obesity) also plays a role. In Flanders and Brussels, everyone between the ages of 50 and 74 is invited every 2 years to be tested for colorectal cancer for free.

Next step: testing on humans

The new immunotherapy has only been tested on mice and human cells in the laboratory. But the first results are promising, it sounds.

“We have shown in the laboratory that the natural killer cells we make recognize and destroy the right cells in the tumor,” says doctoral student Astrid Van den Eynde, who conducted the research.

The researchers hope that their new immunotherapy can be used in patients in 5 years. But first the therapy must be prepared for testing in the clinic, everything is being prepared for that.

Further research is also being conducted to determine whether the therapy also works against other cancers. “We have again received a budget from Kom op tegen Kanker for a follow-up study. And it appears that our therapy will also work against other cancers,” says Professor Smits.