Fighting cancer with vaccines?

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Developing drugs is a time-consuming business. As a rule, the process from initial idea via research in the lab and trials in clinical studies to final approval takes at least ten years. Apart from inspiration and perseverance, one thing in particular is essential: concentrated expertise.

The “world’s pharmacy” in the southwest of Germany

One region in the southwest of Germany offers precisely this expertise. Universities, longstanding pharmaceutical and chemical companies and biotech start-ups make the Rhine-Main region the “world’s pharmacy”. In 2009, companies and research institutes joined forces here to establish Ci3 – the Cluster for Individualized Immune Intervention. Funded by its members and by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Ci3 uses cooperation to make even more effective use of the know-how that already exists in the region. The goal is to develop, “highly innovative pharmaceuticals and accompanying diagnostic tools”.

Special class of drugs

The pharmaceuticals in question are of a particular variety: drugs which mobilize the body’s own immune system. “The focus at Ci3 is on individualized immune therapies that are tailored specifically to the patient”, says Ci3 Managing Director Dr Andrea Schilz.

A specific vaccine for every patient

IVAC, a project involving two Mainz-based biotech start-ups, Biontech und Tron, shows just how far such personalization can go. The companies are working on vaccines designed to combat various kinds of tumours, including skin cancer. Their active ingredients target a tumour’s genetically determined and individual characteristics. What is crucial is that they should activate the immune system. The result is a specific, individual vaccine for every patient.

First drug to fight a form of enteritis

The cluster runs around 30 projects, most of which are about treating cancer. Others focus on infections and immune system disorders. For example, the young biotech company Zedira and the medium-sized pharmaceutical company Dr. Falk Pharma are cooperating with Professor Detlef Schuppan, a specialist in gastric and intestinal disorders at the University Medical Center in Mainz.

Together, the researchers are keen to develop a drug to fight coeliac disease, a chronic inflammation of the small intestine. “To date, the only treatment has been via diet, which means strict and lifelong avoidance of the gluten which is to be found in many foodstuffs”, explains Dr Andrea Schilz. Initial tests of the drug on volunteers are already underway. It will be several years yet before the drug is placed on the market. What the development partners now need above all is sufficient funding, patience and perseverance.


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