The battle against cervical cancer is showing hopeful results. After the recent introduction of a vaccination that prevents the disease occurring, a new effective treatment is also in sight. UMCG researcher Arjan de Mare has developed two methods to stimulate the immune system in such a way that cancer cells can be destroyed. De Mare will be awarded a PhD by the
13 June 2007
Cervical cancer is second only to breast cancer as the most common cancer in women. Every year, half a million women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Most of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer are between the ages of 40 and 44. These women are relatively young and often have young children. This makes cervical cancer particularly tragic.
Cause: HPV infection
The disease is caused by infection with certain subtypes of the human papillomavirus (HPV). The body can usually overcome the infection. The immune system ensures that the infected cells are destroyed so that cancer occurrence can be prevented. Sometimes, however, the immune system does not work properly and then there’s a chance that cervical cancer will develop.
UMCG researcher Arjan de Mare investigated the possibility of stimulating the immune system in such a way that there is a much stronger defence against cervical cancer and its preliminary stages. He did this in two different ways. First, De Mare used virosomes. These are empty virus envelopes into which a researcher can put certain substances. Virosomes, just like the virus from which they are derived, can merge with a cell and transfer its contents to that cell. De Mare used virosomes from the influenza virus and packaged the specific HPV proteins E6 and E7. Presenting these proteins to cells in the immune system stimulates the creation of large numbers of lymphocytes (cytotoxic T lymphocytes) against cervical cancer.
Second, De Mare used a modified rodent virus, the Semliki Forest virus. This virus was adapted in two ways. First, steps were taken to ensure that the virus could infect cells but not make any new virus. Next, the virus was adapted so that cells infected by it would make large amounts of the proteins E6 and E7. This also activated the specific immune reaction that prompted the body to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
De Mare demonstrated that both forms of immune therapy led to the complete destruction of the tumours in tumour-bearing mice. Particularly interesting is the fact that the immune reaction also occurred with immunity to the influenza virus or the Semliki Forest virus. Further research should reveal whether the method will also work in people. The prospects are favourable. ‘This provides a good basis for future clinical studies’, according to De Mare.
A great deal of research is conducted into cervical cancer and many hopeful results are being achieved. A preventive vaccine for cervical cancer recently appeared on the market. This vaccine is extremely expensive, however, and only protects against some of the HPVs that can cause cervical cancer. In addition, vaccination is something that only pays dividends in the long term. Many women will still develop cervical cancer or its preliminary stages. Thus the development of a new treatment method is extremely important.
A. de Mare (Hengelo, 1979) studied biology in Groningen. He conducted his PhD research at the department of Medical Microbiology, Molecular Virology section, of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). His research was supported by a financial donation from the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF Kankerbestrijding). The supervisors of De Mare’s PhD in Medical Sciences are Prof. J.C. Wilschut, Prof. A.G.J. van der Zee and Dr Toos Daemen. He is currently training to become a clinical chemist in the Medisch Spectrum Twente hospital in Enschede. The title of his thesis is ‘Immunotherapy based on influenza virosomes and recombinant Semliki Forest virus: Novel strategies for the treatment of cervical cancer’.
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