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French scientists make breakthrough cancer treatment discovery

The team based in Toulouse has confirmed a fundamental way that the body’s immune system can help to fight cancer tumours more effectively, in what has been dubbed ‘a turning point’ 

A young researcher looking through a microscope

It is hoped that the research could help to improve treatment effectiveness for certain cancer patients Pic: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

A team of scientists in southwest France has discovered a new “fundamental” way to help destroy cancer tumours and improve patient responses to treatments, in a world first.

The Toulouse (Occitanie) research team works with director Jean-Philippe Giraud, at IPBS (Institut de Pharmacologie et de Biologie Structurale), the research collective at CNRS/Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier.

The team of 19 authors (including five doctoral and post-doctoral students) has been working on the project for eight years.

It has just published new insights into the role that certain blood vessels play in the destruction of cancerous tumours during immunotherapy – a revolutionary kind of treatment that can help the body’s immune system to destroy cancerous cells and improve the patient’s prognosis (especially for skin cancer).

The team was researching how “killer lymphocytes” (or white blood cells) enter cancerous tumours. 

The results have conclusively shown that a particular type of blood vessel, the HEV [High Endothelial Venule] are the main entry point – knowledge that could help improve treatment effectiveness.

The team even managed to film the white blood cells leaving the blood, and entering into a tumour via the blood vessels, due to work by CNRS and IPBS research engineer Elisabeth Bellard.

Data collected from 93 metastatic melanoma patients at the Gustave Roussy cancer centre in Villejuif, near Paris, confirmed the studies. Patients whose tumours had particular kinds of blood vessels responded better to immunotherapy treatment.

The study results were published in the prestigious cancer journal Cancer Cell.


‘This is fundamental’

Mr Giraud, who is also a research director at medical research centre Inserm, told La Dépêche: “To get results, you have to understand how the treatments work. We knew that immunotherapy reactivates killer lymphocytes to destroy cancer cells. But we didn't know how they got in. 

“This is fundamental: if the lymphocytes do not come into contact, they do not destroy the tumour. We have just demonstrated that, during immunotherapy treatment, the HEV vessels are the major entry point for lymphocytes and this is a real turning point.”

The new research builds on work by Mr Giraud in 2011, when he discovered that these blood vessels can play an important role in destroying tumours.

Dr Caroline Robert, head of the dermatology department at Gustave Roussy, and director of the Melanoma-Therapeutic Resistance team at Inserm, said that the research would enable doctors to use the presence of HEV vessels as a biomarker to help predict the effectiveness of treatment, and improve the benefit-risk ratio, and the risk of toxicity or ineffectiveness.

She said: “This work is essential because it is not enough to just give people treatment; we also have to ensure it will work and see the path taken by the cells. 

“This is even more important depending on the types of antibodies administered to the patient. Medicine and research are getting closer and closer, we are gaining time.”

In the long-term, the researchers and doctors are hoping that the work will lead to a treatment that can increase the number of HEV vessels in tumours, to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy in destroying cancerous cells.

The news comes in the same week as World Cancer Day (February 4), an international awareness day led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), created in the year 2000.

It seeks to raise worldwide awareness, improve education and improve personal, collective and government action on cancer.

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France's 10-year plan aims to cut high number of avoidable cancers

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