China and Europe partner to study cancer treatment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am


Chinese and European medical institutions have launched a joint project to study cancer immunotherapy, the use of the immune system to eradicate cancer.

The treatment, which stimulates the immune system to attack cancerous cells, has drawn widespread global attention over the past two decades but has achieved limited clinical success.

The four-year project involves six cancer and immune-related research topics, and will receive Euro2 million (HK$21 million) in funding from the European Commission.

As part of the project, the Shanghai-based Immunocan institute, co-founded by the Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Centre and France's Institut Merieux laboratory in 2010, will be collaborating with the University of Copenhagen, Hannover Medical School, and Italy's Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale Dei Tumori.

Researchers will study the immune systems of cancer patients, the risk of recurrence, the efficacy of drugs, and patients' reactions to cancer treatments, says Dr Wu Jiong, deputy director of the Shanghai Cancer Centre.

'In previous days when we studied tumour cells, we focused on how fast these cells grew, how malignant they were and what affects drugs had on them,' Wu, a leading breast cancer specialist, said.

'But tumour cells are in our bodies and our bodies will definitely respond towards them and there is an immune reaction.'

Presently, doctors make their cancer diagnosis based on their experiences or therapy guidelines, both of which are applicable to quite a small percentage of patients, according to Wu.

In the next four years, the Immunocan institute will exchange knowledge and personnel with its European counterparts. European experts will also train mainland doctors in Shanghai.

Ye Xun, a researcher at the institute, says immunotherapy research has not made much progress in the past five years because of its challenging nature.

However, their research could help in the early diagnosis of cancers and researchers have found a way to use blood tests to determine the presence of colon cancer.

Dr Liang Xiaohua, director of oncology at Shanghai's Huashan Hospital, says cancer immunotherapy has been a hot global topic for about two decades, with high expectations for a breakthrough.

The excitement over immunotherapy is partly because the other major cancer treatments - surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy - have failed to make significant progress in recent years in terms of survival rates and prolonging patients' lives, according to Liang.

Although there is a great deal of research on cancer around the world, it is 'a very long road' ahead, as there have been few clinical achievements, Liang says.

Many mainland programmes are chaotic and do not follow the Good Clinical Practice rules, which govern research on new drugs and their clinical use, according to him.


The daily death toll from cancer in Shanghai last year, according to the city's health director, Xu Jianguang