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    Finding a cure with immune cells


    Scientists at the University Children’s Hospital are developing new therapies for a brain tumor that is difficult to treat. They are part of a Bavarian research network aimed at fighting diseases, such as cancer, AIDS or rheumatism, with the help of the immune system.

    Glioblastoma is a malignant brain tumor, which can affect both adults and children. Although there is a combination therapy available, involving surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, the prognosis for patients suffering from this disease is still poor. Therefore, new therapeutic approaches are urgently needed. Immunotherapy shows great promise to be such an approach.

    Therapy with the body’s own cells

    “In the body of patients suffering from glioblastoma, you can find so-called tumor-specific T cells, which can be used to fight the tumor,” explains Professor Paul G. Schlegel, heading the research in the fields of Pediatric Oncology / Hematology / Stem Cell Therapy at the University Children’s Hospital. The advantage of these T cells lies in their ability to act like guards of the immune system in that they can patrol through the body, remaining inactive unless confronted with structures conspicuous to them – the tumor tissue in our case. Healthy tissue is left in peace by these cells.

    However, these cells usually only exist in small numbers. “Therefore, the objective of our project is to increase the number of the few tumor-specific T cells present in the blood of the patients by multiplying them in the lab so that they are available for T cell therapy in great numbers and with good functionality,” says Schlegel.

    The German federal state of Bavaria funds the project

    The project of the research group at the University Children’s Hospital is part of BayImmuNet, the Bavarian Immunotherapy Network, which started work with five research groups last year. To date, the network has been expanded by ten research projects funded by Bavaria with 2.4 million euros.

    However, the project was started as early as in 2008, after medical scientist Dr. Matthias Wölfl joined Professor Schlegel’s group, following his research activity at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, USA. “Thanks to the start-up funding by parental initiatives and generous charity events and with the help of a research grant awarded by the Kind-Philipp foundation, we were able to get our current project up and running. And now we are all the more thrilled to be funded by BayImmuNet,” the two scientists add.

    A clinical trial is envisioned

    In the coming months, the scientists will select the most appropriate cells from their patients’ blood and adapt their methods for the T cell product to finally conform to the requirements of the German Drug Law. “There is still a lot to be done in this area and BayImmuNet enables us – with the financial support and the networking and collaboration within the BayImmuNet research groups – to get closer to our objective of conducting a clinical trial.” “

    Even today, immunotherapy saves the lives of numerous people. With the research approaches taken within the Bavarian Immunotherapy Network, we want to develop new therapies for the treatment of cancer, infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases that can be applied where conventional concepts reach their limits,” explains Professor Reinhard Andreesen, scientific coordinator of BayImmuNet, on the occasion of a presentation of the network’s research approaches held in Regensburg.

    14 million euros for immunotherapy projects

    The federal state of Bavaria grants up to ten million euros to BayImmuNet for the years 2008 to 2011. Together with the money that the funded universities have to raise from their own resources, this gives a total amount of up to 14 million euros made available for research in immunotherapy.

    Another Würzburg research project

    There is yet another project at the University of Würzburg that is funded by BayImmuNet: The medical scientist Dr. Max Topp at the Department of Internal Medicine II has already been working for a year on immunological approaches for disease prevention and therapy of patients infected by the fungus aspergillus fumigatus. This is a much-feared complication in individuals with weakened immune system, such as patients suffering from acute leukemia or patients having received donor cells in stem cell transplantations.

    Fungus spores that are ubiquitous in indoor air can germinate in the lungs of patients with dysfunctional immune system, destroying the lung tissue in the process. Healthy people, in contrast, are able to meet this challenge effectively with their innate and acquired immunity, which allows them to kill off the fungus spores at an early stage.

    Contact information:

    Dr. Matthias Wölfl, e-mail: woelfl_m@klinik.uni-wuerzburg.de
    Professor Dr. Paul G. Schlegel, tel.: (0931) 201 27 728, e-mail: schlegel@mail.uni-wuerzburg.de

    Links: http://www.bayimmunet.de

    By Gunnar Bartsch