»Profiling the criminal inside«
Cancer is like a criminal that steals into our body and destroys us from within. The disease is very complex; it contains an enormous number of gene mutations. We are trying to approach it as profilers to decipher its “personality” and use its genetic fingerprint as a target. It really is similar to a criminal investigation.
We want to use the body’s immune system to combat cancer. Many people think that once cancer is there, the body has no resources to stop it. But even if a relatively strong immune system has failed to prevent cancer, it can still help to destroy it. Our hypothesis is that cancer can be eradicated by a patient’s own T cells, which are the immune cells in our body. The approach is extremely logical and elegant in its simplicity.
Immune cells that fail to stop the cancer are programmed to keep failing over the course of its growth, which is catastrophic for the patient. The cells are “taught” that the mutation is part of the body, but this is simply false.
We remove the T cell receptors from failed immune cells, clone them, and put them on fully functioning immune cells so they can “see” the cancer and attack it. You can compare this to a drill that has the right bit, but a dead battery: the bit fits the cancer, but the machine is out of power. We remove the bit and put it on a charged machine, something that is in plentiful supply in the patient’s body. We use tools that the patient actually already has.
This approach has already been successful in animal experiments. The effect is dramatic: the cancer virtually disintegrates. I am very optimistic that it will become effective for humans as well. We have good evidence that all human cancers have mutations that can be targeted by the immune system. Currently we are trying to define sets of patient-specific and cancer-specific mutations. This will enable a highly personalized therapy.
My own mother and some of my closest friends died of cancer. Like them, most people are healthy, but cancer is a thief that breaks in and robs them of their best years. That perspective has driven me to find a cure.
Many people retire at my age, but for me that’s out of the question. I love going to my office every day. You could say that research is my obsession; there are endless mysteries to be solved. I collaborate with my wife now; she has a talent for experiments and our work together is very innovative. I think it is important to stay close to discovery, even as you get older.
“Cancer is caused by genetic mutations which are used by malignant cells to bypass the healthy body's monitoring systems.
In collaboration with researchers in Berlin, we have discovered that the infusion of cancer-specific T cells can cure very advanced malignant tumours in mice. Direct observation of the eradication process using so-called 'in vivo optical imaging' reveals the mechanism by which the T cells destroy the tumour vasculature. These T cells recognise the cancer-specific mutations which cause cancer. We are currently in the process of applying our findings to the treatment of cancer in humans.“