Combining therapies in the fight against colon cancer

Researchers at the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) and the German Cancer Consortium have teamed up with the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) to examine various cancer treatment therapies on tumor samples from colon cancer patients through computer-simulations. Their exciting results indicate that a combination of immunotherapy along with ablation therapy have measurable effectivity.

A word on colon cancer

Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer and currently has a cure rate of over 90 percent, when diagnosed at an early stage. Once metastasized, the cure rates are drastically reduced, and treatment with a single drug are less effective. Until now, chemotherapy had shown the highest success rate for these patients. However, since chemotherapy can only control this cancer for a limited time period for patients with advanced-stage cancer, researchers have been aggressively seeking new therapy options, like immunotherapy. But, so far, such treatments have shown little promise for patients with colon cancer.

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Focused research on combination therapies

In the last years, combination therapies, which combine two or more substances with different active pharmaceutical ingredients, have gained some ground.

“We are convinced that combination therapy options are essential to maximizing the full use of new drugs together with immunotherapies,” says Dr. Niels Halama, chief physician and head of the medical oncology department at NCT Heidelberg and researcher in the DKTK and DKFZ.

However, combining pharmaceuticals is extremely complex and finding out which combination works best for which patient is often unclear. This process is labor intensive and, for example, may require an average of 45 different clinical studies to determine their effectiveness.

Less clinical studies by using computer techniques

Now, a newly developed computer system may provide a viable alternative. “With this technology we can replicate the spreading of immune cells and tumor cells in tissue, and thereby, create a virtual tumor microenvironment,” explains Jakob Nikolas Kather, lead author and staff physician in medical oncology at NCT Heidelberg and DKFZ in Germany.

With the help of the computer program, researchers can simulate the effects of individual treatment options in four scenarios and examine how the growth of the cancer cells can change with each treatment. Through data analysis, the researchers determined that the combination of immunotherapy with a targeted therapy showed in the most effective results in controlling the tumor cells. They found that targeted therapy made the connective tissue cells penetrable so that the immune cells could attack the cancer cells.

Notably, the treatment only worked in combination with other substances. Kather further explains, “As with any simulation, this simulation is not a true copy of reality, but in a short amount of time, it gives us valuable information about how which treatment might work.” Additional computer analyses should make it possible to identify new treatment combinations, which can be proven in future clinical studies.