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Talk im Turm

“We’ve come a long way already”

After years of little progress, cancer research has now entered into a gold rush. The Talk im Turm event on cancer and precision medicine shone an optimistic light on a difficult topic.
Stefan Stöcklin
Watch the short version of the interview (in German) with Anita Rauch, professor of medical genetics, and Burkhard Becher, professor of immunology.
Audio recording of the entire talk (in German)

In recent years, successful research in genetics and into the molecular workings of cancer have led to remarkable breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. It’s hardly surprising then that the Talk im Turm event on cancer and precision medicine, held in the Uniturm restaurant at the end of June, was marked by optimism. “In a few years cancer will no longer be the horror that it is today,” said immunologist Burkhard Becher, professor of experimental immunology at UZH.

And his colleague Anita Rauch predicted that preventive therapies, like the ones used for treating high blood pressure, will soon be within our reach: “There are already initial studies with drugs that aim to neutralize the genetic predisposition to cancer.” Anita Rauch is professor of medical genetics at the University of Zurich.

Breakthrough thanks to immunotherapies

During the discussion, skillfully guided by Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl of the Communications Office, the two experts took the audience on a journey through the complex world of cancer and immunotherapies, in particular. About 10 years ago, the first successful studies were conducted with new substances that activated the body’s own immune system and turned it against cancer cells.

Depending on the type of cancer, these immunotherapies strengthen the body’s defenses and eliminate the malignant cells. In the case of melanoma and (non-small cell) lung cancer, there have indeed been actual breakthroughs when it comes to treating the disease, said Becher. “These successes are spectacular, even if the therapies can be hard to endure for those affected.”

Optimization on the back of genetic analyses

Another reason for the euphoric mood among medics has to do with the personalization, or optimization, of therapies. Genetic analyses have made it possible to determine the ideal medication available for each patient, explained Rauch.

This, for example, has made it possible to select the best possible combination of therapies for patients suffering from breast cancer or prostate carcinoma based on genetic analyses. And treatment options are becoming more and more varied almost on a daily basis. “We’ve come a long way already,” said Rauch. “In 20 years we will no longer have to be afraid of cancer,” she predicts.

Despite this gold-rush euphoria that has engulfed specialists in the face of recent success, the panelists did not neglect to admit that some types of cancer are still very difficult to treat. Becher for example referred to glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor for which hardly any treatment options exist. The same also goes for metastatic cancer in advanced stages, which at present is largely untreatable.

And yet – the Talk im Turm ended on a positive note, concluding that research will also go on to develop new treatment options for these cases.