07. June 2016

The Future of Cancer Treatment?

Immunotherapy at University Hospital Basel, Switzerland: Immunotherapy is opening up new perspectives on the treatment of tumors. Our own immune systems can now be used to stop or even reverse tumor growth and control it long term. This is already a standard treatment for many tumors and an active field of study in practically every type that is treated.


Nowadays, tumor treatments fall into three categories: surgery, radiotherapy, and systemic cancer treatment. The latter includes chemotherapy and targeted molecular therapy, but also immunotherapy.

Approval has been granted in Switzerland for Ipilimumab (Yervoy), Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and Nivolumab (Opdivo): the first medications – known as checkpoint inhibitors – for the treatment of melanoma (a type of skin cancer), and non-small cell lung cancer. Approval is soon to be extended to other forms, such as advanced kidney cancer, and bladder cancer, Furthermore, in a recent development, immunotherapies such as Ipilimumab and Nivolumab are being used in combination to treat melanoma. The checkpoint inhibitors activate T cells (a type of white blood cell) to fight tumor cells. The results are remarkable: immunotherapy now enables us to combat tumors directly. We are seeing long-term remission for the first time, and patients with advanced melanoma are surviving up to 10 years after diagnosis.

There is hope that for a proportion of patients, this form of treatment can reduce a rapid and fatal disease to a chronic condition, or even cure it.

Assisted by his research team, Prof. Alfred Zippelius, Deputy Chief Physician, Oncology and head of the Immunotherapy Competence Network, is investigating how exactly these innovative medications work. The team is exploring the best way to combine them with other types of treatment such as radiation, targeted molecular therapies and even chemotherapy. “We want to understand exactly what these new medications do in the body. That way, we can draw conclusions on which patients respond to which treatments, and how to combine them.” The research group’s aim is to use empirical data to define the optimum personalized treatment combination for each patient, drawing on targeted therapy, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. Since every type of tumor inhibits T cells differently, inhibitors need to be tailored to the cancer concerned. Given that there are so many kinds of tumor, this is a long-term research objective and requires close cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry.

The side-effects of immunotherapy include inflammation in organs such as the skin, liver and intestine. But this is very straightforward to treat, especially if diagnosed early. Treatment sequences developed in collaboration with gastroenterologists or dermatologists also help. In addition, Prof. Zippelius and Dr. Heinz Läubli, Attending Physician, Medical Oncology, run the Immunology Treatment Board at University Hospital Basel, which meets every Friday and holds interdisciplinary conferences on treatments and side effects.

For further information and appointments at University Hospital Basel, please contact our International Service Team.