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In Switzerland, around 2,700 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year. And the rate at which the disease occurs has seen a considerable rise over the past decades. In cases of advanced skin cancer, medics are increasingly turning to immunotherapy as a new form of treatment besides surgery. This mainly involves patients being administered so-called immune checkpoint inhibitors through infusion. The antibodies prevent the cancer cells from disabling the immune system.
Immunotherapy is fast becoming the preferred course of action for treating skin cancer and also lung cancer, sometimes in combination with conventional therapies. Unfortunately, not all patients respond to this form of treatment, and when treatment is begun, it is uncertain whether immunotherapy will ultimately benefit a patient.
Lukas Flatz and Maries van den Broek want to change this. Lukas Flatz is SNSF Assistant Professor at UZH and Chief of Service at the cantonal hospital of St. Gallen, and Maries van den Broek is Professor of Immunology at UZH. Together they’re investigating tumors with the aim of finding biomarkers that are able to predict the effectiveness of treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors as well as whether any side effects might occur. To achieve this, they’re examining around 120 patients suffering from advanced skin or lung cancer.
Lukas Flatz and Maries van den Broek’s research project is now also being supported through the Cancer Research Center’s (CRC) funding program (see box). Financed by UZH and the Faculty of Medicine, the program provides funding to the tune of 4.9 million francs for innovative cancer research from 2018 to 2021 with the aim of translating insights from pure research into clinical use as quickly as possible.
“There’s a lot that pure researchers and medics can learn from each other. By working together closely, shared goals can be achieved more quickly,” says Maries van den Broek, who is also Chair of the CRC Directorate. It’s hardly surprising then that the program only supports projects led by research teams that are made up of a scientist and a physician scientist each.
This requirement is a good example of UZH and USZ’s efforts to boost cancer research and cancer medicine in Zurich. Together with the Balgrist University Hospital and the University Children’s Hospital Zurich, the two organizations thus established the Comprehensive Cancer Center Zurich (CCC Zurich) in January 2018.
The center combines cancer research, treatment and interdisciplinary education of physicians and scientists. Within the CCC Zurich, efforts in cancer research are pooled in the aforementioned Cancer Research Center (CRC). Around 50 departments and research groups from UZH, USZ, the Balgrist University Hospital, the University Children’s Hospital Zurich and ETH Zurich are involved. They’re all working hand in hand to make sure that insights gained in pure research are transferred into the clinics.
The Comprehensive Cancer Center Zurich wants to be a leading center not only in national and international cancer research, but also when it comes to treating cancer. “We want to have patients benefit from new therapies as quickly as possible,” says Professor Rolf Stahel, Director of the CCC Zurich.
The center thus provides its patients with innovative and cross-disciplinary treatment in keeping with the latest medical standards. With its 17 organ centers, USZ covers all types of tumors, with treatments spanning diagnosis, radiation, chemotherapy and surgery as well as nutritional advisory services and psychological support. With its research-based treatment and many clinical studies, CCC Zurich sets itself apart from other clinics, where no research takes place.
Rolf Stahel and Maries van den Broek agree: “The Comprehensive Care Center Zurich means we’re ideally positioned for the future: We provide cancer research and cancer medicine from a single source and at the highest level.”