MD, PhD, Director of the Department of Oncology at the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV), Director of the Lausanne Branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Lausanne, Switzerland
I truly think that personalized medicine is the future of medical practice in cancer patient care that will make a direct impact on and change the way we manage patients.
Doctor Coukos you have demonstrated excellence in the field of Medicine and research. Do you recall the first time you thought of studying Medicine? What made you take this scientific path? How satisfied do you feel with your overall progress?
Growing up, I spent much of my free time reading philosophy, psychology and art books and at the time, my family and friends thought that I would choose a career in literature or writing. I however knew quite early that I wanted to help others directly, and as I was also passionate about natural sciences and in particular biology, going to medical school became obvious to me. The sole idea that we need to keep learning and researching to try and understand the increasingly evolving complexity of human biology fascinated me. This constant quest to decode and unravel the living cell’s mechanisms in health and disease is the challenge that I wanted to take up. After medical school and more research training, I realized that gynaecologic oncology needed more help and development and I therefore focused my career on ovarian cancer research and cancer immunotherapy. I feel already quite satisfied with some important progress achieved in that area as for example, together with my team in the US, we have been able to observe therapeutic benefits in ovarian cancer patients using cell-based immunotherapy. However, in spite of great advances in the knowledge and practice of cancer medicine, cancer remains incredibly complex to understand, calling for establishing large teams and collaborative networks for advancing discovery and development of innovative approaches and ways to tackle it more effectively. There is still a long way to go.
What were the factors that stimulated your research interest and made you decide to focus on tumor research and immunotherapy?
As I mentioned, I decided to focus on tumor research because cancer is not a single problem with a single solution, and therefore identifying and providing new solutions to advance cancer therapies is a crucial challenge to take on and manage, and one that requires the commitment of as many dedicated scientists as possible. My own interest in immunotherapy started in the late 1990s when I discovered a spontaneous immune response in ovarian cancer and that this had an impact on clinical outcome. I then decided to keep exploring the potential benefits of immunotherapy in treating the disease.
Your research focus area is the development of novel immunotherapies, especially those in which the treatment is tailored to a patient’s cancer—such as dendritic cell vaccines. We wish to learn more about this new treatment. What is its mechanism of action and its target?
We are indeed focusing on the development of personalized immunotherapy treatments. We are developing the approach of adoptive therapy by which tumor specific T cells are isolated from the patient’s own tumor or blood, expanded in the laboratory to generate great quantities that are then infused back into the patient to give their immune system the ability to fight the cancer. These cells may even be manipulated in the laboratory to endow them with potent anticancer properties thereby enhancing their functional properties. Thus, the manipulation of the T cells involves genetic engineering to introduce new receptors allowing them to recognize tumor surface proteins and destroy the tumor. With this approach, we hope to deliver new therapeutic applications affording unprecedented potency against human tumors.
We are also working to develop personalized cancer vaccines such as dendritic cell vaccines with increased efficacy. In this strategy, the dendritic cells are made from cells isolated from the patient’s own blood. Dendritic cells act as spy cells, which under natural conditions, patrol the body. When they spot tumor cells, they go into the lymph nodes to recruit tumor-specific killer T cells, which will attack the tumor. In the laboratory, dendritic cells are manufactured by actually exposing them to some of the tumor-specific antigens and then are injected into the patient’s lymph nodes to elicit T-cell responses against the tumor.
How can innovative technologies open “new roads” towards the greater understanding of tumor development, which will subsequently lead to new therapeutic choices? What is the perspective of medical practice in the near future?
With the significant increase of the cancer burden, innovative technologies are the key to offering treatments, which can extend survival and offer a real chance for cure. To me, first of all, one factor that is absolutely required for innovative technologies to happen is bringing people from different backgrounds to interact and work together. This includes researchers, physician scientists, clinicians, bioengineers, data scientists etc. Together scientists from different disciplines can pool their knowledge and maximize their access to both clinical and research expertise, as well as cutting-edge technologies to create opportunities for discovering and producing new technologies. Here we mean a broad spectrum of technologies, such as breakthrough clinical protocols or discoveries, sophisticated bioengineering tools supporting and advancing cancer research, preclinical findings on the molecular mechanisms governing the interplay between tumors and the immune system for example. All these efforts ultimately lead to the identification and delivery of new therapies as our goal is to move our transformative, mechanism-guided scientific findings from the laboratory to the clinic to be offered to patients.
Importantly, we are developing these anti-cancer technologies to provide personalized therapies, that is, to treat our patients by using their own tumors and blood for vaccine and cell therapy manufacturing. I truly think that personalized medicine is the future of medical practice in cancer patient care that will make a direct impact on and change the way we manage patients.
In your opinion is immunotherapy the “key” in treating cancer?
I would say that immunotherapy is one of the big “keys”, in combination with other treatments. Immunotherapeutic approaches are multiple such as T-cell therapies, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies. Some techniques of immunotherapy have already yielded good results in early phase clinical trials but a lot of work still remains to be done to make sure immunotherapy can benefit most patients. There is good reason to believe that when combined with other therapies such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted therapies, immunotherapy should offer the possibility to treat every patient according to the nature of their tumor.
Immunotherapy is outstanding in the sense that it is the only therapy that has long-term memory because it engages the patient’s own defenses. So, after surgery, radiation and targeted therapies have reduced or weakened the tumor defenses, the immune system can be activated to clear the residual cells which are always responsible for relapse.
What is the role of innovative medical technologies? Which diseases can we expect to cure in the near future?
Following on from my answer to question 4, the role of innovative medical technologies is definitely to make a real positive impact on disease management as well as to improve and increase patients’ health and survival. I am confident that immunotherapies could transform the prospects for curing many cancers within 10 years or so. Some cancers will become manageable chronic diseases, others will be more difficult to treat.
Cancer Moonshot was a promising program of the Obama Administration for the treatment of cancer. What are the potential consequences for the cancer treatment research globally if the Trump Administration decides to end the aforementioned program?
It is very clear that to win the war on cancer, governments must invest a lot of money in research. The Cancer Moonshot program was created by the US government as a clear commitment to earmark special funds to advance and speed up progress in preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer and to improve health and outcomes for patients through investments in research and infrastructure. Although this special initiative provides well-needed money, it represents only a small amount of the current NIH budget dedicated to cancer research. Part of the problem is of course that the overall NIH budget, including that of the National Cancer Institute, the branch of the NIH dedicated to cancer research, has been flat for about ten years and right at the time when we need more funds to translate exciting discoveries to the clinic. So, special initiatives such as the Moonshot program only provide a small fraction of the needed support. If the US Administration eventually decides to actually cut the NIH budget, this could definitely impair the ability of the scientific and medical community to translate better and faster our deeper understanding of cancer biology into innovative therapies. This could be very damaging.
How receptive are patients outside Switzerland to accept your innovative clinical programs? How do you manage to communicate these novel therapeutic options?
Our innovative clinical programs will indeed be open to patients inside and outside of Switzerland. As in the US, patients in European countries are very interested in immunotherapy and wish to be educated and sensitized to these innovative treatments. We make it a priority to communicate our novel therapeutic options through education and awareness using various media (newspaper articles, magazines, internet, TV…). In addition, as our research laboratories are part of the Ludwig Cancer Research community, we also broadly communicate via this international network.
In your opinion is the working environment a useful tool to any given researcher which can determine the very course of his research output? Why do you believe that Switzerland has been for many years an area of novel treatment application countries?
Absolutely! A critical mass of researchers, a concentration of bright minds, the presence of numerous independent disciplines around biologic research are absolutely key for creating a dynamic environment that will spark technological innovation, which can drive discovery. In addition, building very serious bridges with the hospital environment by supporting a translational research infrastructure is key for the development of clinical innovation. This is exactly what we are doing here. This kind of scientific environment surely stimulates and benefits each researcher who is part of it.
You are leading the Agora – Cancer Centre, a new integrated research center -utilizing a word of Greek origin- which will operate in 2018. We would be grateful if you could elaborate on this new endeavor.
We are getting closer to finishing the construction of the Agora building, which will be the flagship of the cancer research center community for translational research in Lausanne. Named in reference to the place where ancient Athenians gathered to debate, it aims to bring people (researchers, clinicians, engineers, data scientists etc.) together and foster daily formal and informal interactions and scientific debate, so as to trigger opportunities for new thinking and innovative discoveries that can be translated directly to the clinic with good clinical practice. The building will house around 250 researchers and was designed with an open architecture to promote frequent daily interactions. That includes laboratories without walls and doors so that people talk to each other and a culture of trust can develop. There will also be lots of open spaces and large atria to allow sitting and interacting. Its location near the hospital is very important as it has to be linked functionally with the clinical development programs at the CHUV. AGORA is entirely funded by the ISREC Foundation, a private foundation created in 1964, which reinforces the efforts of the public sector in the fight against cancer. This is a wonderful example of how philanthropy can have a major impact on research and medical innovation, through a public-private partnership coalescing in an efficient way resources to attract a broad spectrum of expertise in the domain of cancer research.
Why Greeks manage to excel abroad? Why is it that hard to achieve similar progress in our country? If you could change one thing in the research conducted in Greece what would that be?
Greek universities train excellent students to become very good and talented researchers or clinicians. A lot of junior Greek scientists leave the country because they are offered better opportunities in Europe or the US, better in terms of salaries, projects magnitude and career advancement. Research is incredibly expensive, in particular translational research. Switzerland and other countries have made it a high priority to invest huge amounts of money in big translational and clinical programs to advance cancer research and improve therapies. These investments pay off immediately in terms of recruiting talent from all over the world. Mid and long term these investments pay off by developing local economic engines and by bringing benefit to patients.
Research has suffered a lot form the politico-economical turmoil that Greece has been experiencing for a long time now. Then, if I could change one thing in the research system, it would be investment policies to manage an increase in scientific research funding.