Innovative research pushes boundaries in the fight against cancer


Cancer treatments are getting better, more diverse and more numerous. Although we still die from cancer, we are also increasingly recovering from it. Research, pharmaceutical companies, governments and private individuals are joining forces to fight cancer together.

New approaches, new targets, new treatments. Cancer research continues to progress, even though there is still a long way to go before the disease is eradicated.

“Although cancer still causes many fatalities, the treatments available are more effective than they were in the past. An earlier diagnosis greatly increases the chance of recovery. With this in mind, one of the goals is to implement preventative measures future generations at an increasingly early stage”, says Johan Van Weyenbergh, Senior Scientist, Rega Institute – KU Leuven.

“The key to success is an early diagnosis”, confirms em. Prof. Dr. Pierre Coulie, professor of immunology at the Faculty of Medicine of UCLouvain. “This implies regular screening tests, which are not yet sufficiently established in certain parts of Belgium.”

« Immunotherapy changed patients' lives »

 “Immunotherapy is one of our specialties, a technology that we pioneered and brought to market,” says Paul Lacante, Medical Director Bristol Myers Squibb Benelux and EU Cluster.

Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy does not target the cancer cells themselves, but instead activates the immune cells around the cancerous cells. In this case, it is the activated immune cells that will destroy the cancer cells. This technique causes less discomfort than chemotherapy.

“Immunotherapy has clearly changed the lives of patients”, confirms Johan Van Weyenbergh. “We are now in the 21st century, the era of big data and artificial intelligence. With accurate patient records available, we know how they eat, move and sleep. This information is crucial not only for treating cancer, but also for its prevention.”

With immunotherapy, the treatment of cancers has become more individualized and is treated on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of cancer and the specific needs of the patient. Surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and precision medicine (which takes into account the molecular and cellular characteristics of a tumor, its microenvironment and other personal characteristics) make it possible to tailor a treatment. “Even though everything seems to have become more complex, the different treatments can be combined to be more effective than those of the past. Today we can clearly say that when a patient is cured of cancer, it is thanks to the joint effort of a large number of people”, says em. Prof. Dr. Coulie. “But this specialization of treatments also has a price. It requires larger teams with broad expertise.”

Together against cancer

World Cancer Day takes place on February 4 and aims to raise awareness about the disease, its risks and consequences in a positive way. "A lot of progress comes from research and universities, but this is also largely dependent on government money and endowments," says em. Prof. Dr. Coulie.

“Patients hold a vital position in the battle against cancer,” adds Johan Van Weyenbergh. “Their tales of healing bring a message of hope, and foster a sense of solidarity in society. I anticipate that patients will progressively become more actively involved in cancer research.”

Em. Prof. Dr. Coulie emphasizes the importance of building bridges between research, universities and pharmaceutical companies. “The problem of cancer is too wide-ranging and we absolutely need to join forces around the disease – it demands a united effort. Communication with patients and the public is also essential, as the public actively supports research through associations such as the Foundation against Cancer.”

Which treatments for the future?

The combination of treatments has brought much hope in the fight against cancer, and there is further reason to be optimistic. “We are exploring promising avenues for the future, such as immunotherapy drugs, and potentially even vaccines,” em explains. Prof. Dr. Coulie. “But at the moment we don't have a precise idea of what the outcomes of these research efforts will be. Only time will reveal their true potential.”