Cross-border fight against cancer
Every year, more than 420,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. However, nowadays cancer must no longer be a death sentence. A growing number of people can be cured thanks to the progress made in developing new drugs and therapies. However, this has only been made possible through the work of many doctors, biologists and pharmacists who are continually working hard to find new treatment methods and therapies. The Lake Constance region offers a broad range of different cancer therapies and is also home to several institutes and companies that are successfully dealing with cancer research.
Cancer has for a long time been incurable, and cancer patients could often only be treated in large university hospitals. In the meantime, many things have changed. Preventive medical check-ups enable doctors to recognise many diseases at an early stage and treat them. Many new and more effective methods and therapies are available. Over the last few years, many clinics in the Lake Constance region have specialised in the treatment of cancer patients. This resulted in close co-operation between hospitals. Oncological research and therapy priority programmes were established, in which doctors, hospitals and patient care organisations work closely together. In addition, breast and other tumour centres were established. The majority of patients no longer have to travel far to obtain effective treatment. In addition to the numerous treatment and care options in the Lake Constance area, there are numerous renowned institutes and companies focusing on cancer research. These institutions show that the region has more to offer than just tourism and the lake, and that the region can keep up with other large centres due to the broad range of companies, scientific disciplines, technologies and research areas.
Science at Lake Constance
The BioLAGO biotechnology network clearly shows the versatility of the region in terms of life science research and application. It offers the universities, companies and institutions around the lake a joint platform for co-operation and exchange of information. The principal goals of the association are the establishment of an alliance between entrepreneurs and scientists to support knowledge transfer, cross-border co-operation and the establishment of new companies in the area. BioLAGO has 32 members, including some that are active in cancer research, including the pharmaceutical company Nycomed, the University of Constance and the Thurgau Biotechnology Institute (BITg). These and some other research institutes in the Lake Constance region will be presented in the following paragraphs.
Basic medical research at the University of Constance
Although the University of Constance does not have a medical faculty, it nevertheless carries out basic medical research. The biological faculty has several work groups that focus on cancer. The team of scientists led by Prof. Marcus Groettrup, for example, researches prostate cancer, which is the most frequent type of malignant tumours in men and the second most frequent cause of cancer-related deaths. Groettrup has developed an immunotherapy, in which the immune system of patients is stimulated and the immune system cells kill the tumour cells. The therapy was tested in a project carried out in co-operation with the Department of Oncology of the Canton Hospital in St. Gallen, Switzerland, which has an excellent international reputation due to its regular participation in clinical studies and the organisation of conferences. In Switzerland, the hospital is a renowned centre for clinical and oncological research. The co-operation partners tested Groettrup’s immunotherapy in six patients. The cancer could be stopped or delayed in three patients. This is an encouraging success.
The only problem associated with this method is that specific cells of the patients have to be cultivated, and this requires a lot of time and work. The effort is so great that the method is unlikely to become clinical routine. That is why the Constance researchers have joined forces with pharmacists from the ETH Zurich and have developed a method that enables the preparation of the cells directly in the patients’ body. Cultivation of the cells in the laboratory is no longer necessary. Excellent results have been achieved and will now be evaluated further. At a later stage, the method will be tested in clinical trials in co-operation with the Canton Hospital in Münsterlingen, Switzerland.
The University of Constance is working together with the Thurgau Biotechnology Institute (BITg) in Kreuzlingen, which also focuses on applied basic immunological research. The BITg was established in 1999 as a cantonal research institute with close academic connections with the University of Constance. Since 2004, the BITg has been a Swiss research institute that the Swiss government supports financially. The BITg has two research groups that are led by Dr. Daniel Legler and Prof. Dr. Marcus Groettrup. Legler’s research group is mainly interested in the migration of human dendritic cells as the basis for the development of new, natural tumour vaccines. Groettrup’s research group at the BITg deals with the development of immunotherapies against prostate carcinoma. The University of Constance and industrial companies like to co-operate and carry out studies with Swiss hospitals because they are successful and excellent co-operation partners. In addition, in Germany there are stringent bureaucratic obstacles that make it a lot more difficult to clinically test new therapies or drugs. In Switzerland, these processes are assessed just as thoroughly as in Germany, but are far less bureaucratic, said Prof. Dr. Marcus Groettrup. This is of great importance for the research-based institutes in the Lake Constance area that benefit from the vicinity to Switzerland.
Intensive cancer research in Switzerland
Apart from the University of Constance and the BITg, there are further institutes that are active in cancer research. The Institute of Pathology of the Canton Hospital in Münsterlingen (part of Spital Thurgau AG) focuses on diagnostics, quality assurance and causal research in studies. The institute checks patient data and findings for certain frequencies that might provide information on the causes and triggers of cancers and deaths. These will then be analysed by basic researchers. Causal research, therefore, makes important contributions to cancer research and connects basic research and clinical research. The ZeTuP Tumour Centre in St. Gallen is well known for its excellent clinical and laboratory research. The centre was established in 1998 and focuses on the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. It actively participates in national and international scientific programmes and carries out own research in the fields of cancer treatment and prevention. The centre co-operates closely with the oncology centres at the St. Gallen and Chur Canton Hospitals as well as the “Swiss Work Group for Clinical Cancer Research”, the BITg and the University of Constance. In recent years, the ZeTuP has made important progress in the field of diagnostics, therapy and care of tumour patients.
Research, development and production
The development and production of drugs are also important fields of cancer research. Researchers are working hard to find solutions for the routine application of their results and methods. The pharmaceutical company Nycomed represents this scientific area in the Lake Constance area. The Danish drug producer, which acquired ALTANA Pharma at the end of 2006, focuses on the production, marketing and commercialisation of drugs, but it is also active in research and development. The company has a very modern research centre at its Constance site with more than 600 researchers working in the core competence areas of respiratory, gastrointestinal and other cancers, and is looking for new therapies and developing innovative drugs. Before it was taken over by Nycomed, ALTANA used to successfully work on the development of oncological drugs and a new compound entered the first phase of clinical testing in autumn 2007. The future of oncological research at Nycomed is slightly uncertain because the company does not have plans to continue in this area. It is certain, however, that promising research will continue after the takeover by a partner. The company is also evaluating the possibility of establishing a new biotechnology start-up company for this particular purpose.
Despite many findings, new drugs and the introduction of early prevention programmes, cancer is still a great challenge for researchers. It is difficult to “reach a big breakthrough in cancer medicine”, in which cancer therapy progress can only be made in small steps, and hardly ever for all cancers at the same time. However, small steps can also lead to success. And some of these small steps are being made in the Lake Constance area.