Personalised cancer treatment wins VUB researcher New Scientist award

Summary

VUB scientist Damya Laoui has won New Scientist’s Talent Award for her research into an individualised approach to cancer treatment, as well as her commitment to informing the public

Putting our immune systems to work

Personalised medicine is a hot topic – the idea that treatments can be much more effective if they are tailored to an individual’s specific condition. One researcher well on the way to achieving this goal is Damya Laoui, a bioengineer at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), who recently won the 2018 New Scientist Science Talent Award.

Laoui’s research involves finding ways to make the body’s immune system work more effectively against cancer. The main challenge in doing this is the complexity of the system, which is made up of many different cells, molecules and biochemical pathways.

“You think you know how it works,” she says. “You try to inhibit some pathways or some molecules, but then there are some other cells or other factors that take over, and the therapy you were trying doesn’t work.”

But these frustrations can also be productive. Initially she was working on macrophages, immune system cells that break down invading or unhealthy cells.

Unexpected discoveries

“But then there were these dendritic cells, which look a little bit like macrophages, and were always confusing my results,” she says. “So I decided to look at these cells, to find out why they were there and what they were doing. And it turned out they were also very interesting.”

Dendritic cells are involved in the signalling system that triggers an immune response. They are found in tumours but seem to be inactive, possibly knocked out by the cancer itself. So Laoui’s idea was to isolate these cells and see if they could be reactivated.

Two kinds of dendritic cell proved effective when given to mice with tumours, although the results varied depending on the type of cancer. “In breast cancer models, the tumours stop growing completely with one kind of cell, or grow and then regress with the other,” she says. “In lung cancer models, we have a 50% growth reduction, so we might need to combine it with something else to produce a total regression.”

A lot of research is publicly funded, so I think it’s important that people know what we are doing with that money

- VUB bioengineer Damya Laoui

She is keen to emphasise the importance of this research with animals. “You can’t do this work in cell culture or test tube systems, because you cannot reproduce the whole immune system. Hopefully this might be possible in 30 years’ time, but now we really need a living system.”

The next step is to see if this immunotherapy works in cancer patients. The idea would be to isolate dendritic cells from a patient’s tumour and then, after conventional treatment, use the cells like a vaccine to prevent the cancer returning or spreading to other parts of the body. These secondary cancers, or metastases, are responsible for the vast majority of cancer deaths.

As well as being tailored to each individual tumour, this immunotherapy should have few or no adverse side-effects because the dendritic cells come from the patient’s own body. Laoui thinks it will be two or three years before clinical trials can begin.

Women in Stem

One hurdle is getting ethical approval to carry out the procedure on patients. Another is to refine the equipment. “Everything needs to be in a closed circuit, so that what we isolate from a patient’s tumour can be re-injected without any risk of contamination from the outside world.”

Then it’s a question of waiting. “We have to wait until it’s clear that the people we treat have not developed metastases or relapsed, and that can take five to seven years. It’s only after that when we will know if our therapy is working or not.”

As well as recognising the originality of her research, the New Scientist award pays tribute to Laoui’s communications about it. “A lot of our research has public funding, so I think it’s important that people know what we are doing with that money,” she says. “And when it’s related to cancer, people always have a lot of questions, so it’s important that they get the right information.”

She is also a champion for women in science. “I always try to persuade girls to consider careers in science,” she says. “Young girls have to realise that they have this potential and... let’s say that older, male professors have to realise that, too. We are coming.”

Photo: Thierry Geenen/VUB

Free University of Brussels (VUB)

The VUB was established as a spin-off of the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles in the 1960s. It’s an internationally oriented and liberal institution, and the only Dutch-speaking university in the capital.
Work - The VUB is the largest Dutch-speaking employer of the Brussels-Capital Region.
St V - Every year, students honour university founder Pierre Theodore Verhaegen in a festive, booze-filled “St V” march through the city.
Campus - The VUB is the only Dutch-speaking university with a small, American-style green campus.
68

Master’s programmes offered

70

million euros in research budget in 2010

12 000

students in 2011-2012 academic year