“We have something that might be working, and we want to take it to the patients.”

Alan Ghitis Association August 9, 2021

We are very excited to share this video of Prof. Maria Rescigno, explaining in a very simple and understandable way what her team has been working on.

Thanks to committed donors, we were able to help fund research for the Development of new cancer immunotherapy at Humanitas University, Italy.

Prof. Maria Rescigno is updating us regularly on her progress. In the following video and article, discover the latest breakthroughs she and her team have made! 

Alan Ghitis Association against melanoma cancer channel

How does a cancer cell become a tumor?

A cancer cell at some point escapes control from the rest of the body. When this cell is very fit and is not recognized anymore by the immune system, this cell starts proliferating and becomes a tumor.

It’s like a Darwinian selection: when a cell is so fit that it is not recognized by the immune system, it starts growing, proliferating, and becomes a tumor.

What are the treatments currently available to patients?

There are several treatments that are available. 

When a cell becomes a tumour cell, it has genetic mutations that you can pinpoint. You can have a treatment specifically targeted at those genetic mutations

You can also have treatments that are affecting all the cells that are proliferating, including tumours cells: this could be chemotherapy. This is the reason why a patient would lose their hair with that treatment: the hair is made of cells that are continuously proliferating. 

And then you have immunotherapy: when the tumour cell is escaping the immune system recognition, you can try to educate again the immune system to recognise the cell as a tumour cell, so it can kill it. This is what I am working on.

What is your research trying to do?

I’m trying to educate the immune system to recognise again the tumour cells, and to kill them. 

There are several ways you can do this. One of them is to reactivate the immune cells. On the other hand, the tumour cells try to avoid recognition. So you have to re-educate the immune cells in recognising the tumour cells. You can do this by proving antibodies. 

What we are trying to do is to re-establish the flag on the tumour cell, in order for the tumour cell to be recognized again as a tumour cell.

Sometimes, these cells have not been activated at all. In that case, you can create a therapeutic vaccine. You can then start the immune response to that particular tumour.

Finally, the tumour cell could be avoiding recognition because the “flag” that is on this tumour does not express anymore. It means the body has no way to recognise that this is a tumour cell. What we are trying to do is to re-establish the flag on the tumour cell, in order for the tumour cell to be recognized again as a tumour cell.

What have you discovered?

This flag can be re-established because many scientists working on this topic noticed that the patients that were responding better to immunotherapy had a particular type of microbe in the gut.

The first hypothesis we formulated was: maybe there is something that these microbes are releasing that are making the tumour cells more visible and are allowing their flags to be exposed to the surface again.

We have identified a bacteria in particular that allows the tumour cells to be recognisable again, and killed by the immune system.

We know that this is what they do, but we don’t know yet how. And this is important to understand. Because in case it doesn’t work on the patient, we need to know why it didn’t work in order to adapt the treatment we want to make. The more we know, the better is the efficacy on the patient.

Consider donating to the Alan Ghitis Association to help fund this project and more like this one.

How do you check your theory?

We have a library of different microbes that are usually present in our gut. We have established a system to have those molecules released directly on tumour cells on different patients, to check if it helps to recognise again the tumour cell.

We do those experiments in vitro, not directly on the patients. If it works, we ask ourselves: what is the active ingredient responsible for this?

Once we identify the exact molecule that allows tumour cells to be recognisable, this can become a therapeutic strategy to be used in combination with immunotherapy. In this case: the tumour cell puts a flag on the surface, and the immunotherapy recognises the cell and eliminates it. 

In this way, we should be allowing patients that are not responsive to immunotherapy, to become responsive to it.

On which types of cancer does it work?

Primarily on certain types of tumours, in particular on melanomas and lymphomas. However, we are quite confident that there may be other metabolites we can identify for other types of tumours.

When will this be available to patients?

This technology that we are establishing will sooner or later get to the patients. We are now facing regulatory requirements. When you are taking something completely new to a patient, it’s called a “first in man”. 

Those procedures for us, as researchers, are the most difficult part. This requires knowledge that we don’t have. We need to seek help for this step.

  • First, you have to show that the treatment is not toxic for patients – you test this on around 20 patients.
  • The second phase is clinical trial on between 50 and 100 patients.
  • On the third phase, you must demonstrate the efficacy on the treatment, in a very high number of patients.

This technology that we are establishing will sooner or later get to the patients

What do you need right now to make progress?

We have something that might be working, and we want to take it to the patients. Up to now, we have had enough money to identify the metabolites. We now need additional funding to bring this to the patients. We need to carry out at least phase one (see above) to show that the treatment is not toxic.

Once we have done that, I am pretty sure there would be interest from pharmaceutical companies to carry one with phases 2 and 3. 

How will the funds be used?

  • We need to hire an expert for the regulatory part to make sure we are compliant with what the government requires. 
  • Then, we need to prepare the metabolites in a way that is suitable to be injected into a patient. 
  • Finally, we need to enrol patients for trials. We need funds for the work done by the hospital, and for the insurance of the patients.

We are at a point at which we are very excited, but we need to ahead!