Oncology is the field of medicine devoted to cancer. Cancer is the generic term for a large group of diseases in which cells grow out of control and can spread to other parts of the body. Cancer involves a series of mutations or changes in the genetic make up of a cell, causing it to look and function differently from normal cells. Thus, cancer is actually a disease of the cell.
It is estimated that in 2030 there will be 17 million deaths worldwide due to cancer. There are several areas of application in the field of oncology. Diagnostic and imaging medical equipment allow diagnosis of the type of cancer, as well as the visualisation, monitoring and analysis of tumours. Drugs treat patients with various forms of cancer.
Surgery enables the removal of tumours. Cell and tissue engineering explore possible new therapies. Research groups work on basic and clinical research in the BioAlps cluster; a wide range of companies, large and small, are also working to find a treatment or even, hopefully, a cure.
The Faculties of Medicine of the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne both offer specializations in oncology at postgraduate level. Geneva proposes a Master of Advanced Clinical Studies in medical oncology (the treatment of cancer with medicine, including chemotherapy), with an approach that is both practical and multidisciplinary.
Lausanne University’s Faculty of Biology and Medicine collaborates closely with the EPFL’s Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC), the Biochemistry Institute of Lausanne University, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, and the Centre pluridisciplinaire d'oncologie clinique (CEPO), who together form a National Competence Centre for cancer research.
The CEPO also cares for oncology in- and outpatients. The National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) in Molecular Oncology is a network research programme in the field of cancer research. The programme is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Geneva University’s Department of Pharmaceutical Biochemistry is working on overcoming three limitations of graft-versus-host disease: i) immunogenicity of the viral TK protein, ii) the frequent use of ganciclovir for the treatment of cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection resulting in the elimination of herpes simplex virus type 1 thymidine kinase transduced donor lymphocytes and reduced graft versus tumour activity of allogenic bone marrow transplantation, iii) the absence of a non invasive in situ monitoring system for donor T lymphocytes.
Another project aims to generate new knowledge on the molecular pathogenic events leading to malignant transformation in human cancers caused by oncogenic fusion protein (OFP) with tyrosine kinase (TK) activity, Npm/Alk and to exploit this information to develop and test innovative treatment modalities.
The main purpose of this project is to generate new knowledge on the molecular pathogenic events leading to malignant transformation in human cancers caused by oncogenic fusion protein (OFP) with tyrosine kinase (TK) activity, Npm/Alk and to exploit this information to develop and test innovative treatment modalities.
Geneva and Lausanne’s Faculties of medicine collaborate closely with the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) and Lausanne (CHUV). The latter has programmes that cover diagnosis, therapy, curative and palliative treatment, and remission of different kinds of cancer. Therapies include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy.
The University of Lausanne is researching translational aspects of oncology treatment, notably the development of antiangiogenic treatments (i.e. which target new blood vessels which feed tumours as they become malignant). Private clinics such as the Hôpital de La Tour, the Genolier Swiss Medical Network and the Hirslanden group of clinics also have specialised oncology teams, which participate in clinical trials as well as treating patients.
Bern University’s Department of Clinical Research is investigating the molecular pathology of acute and chronic leukaemias, a programme run in close collaboration and as a joint venture with the Department of Haematology. Other programmes investigate molecular effects of anticancer drugs on tumour tissue and cell lines.
Cytotoxic drug effects are examined by apoptosis assays and other molecular techniques. The mechanisms of drug resistance in ovarian cancer, with a special interest in response modifiers to cytotoxic therapy are being researched, while another project focuses on the assessment of molecular markers to allow for early detection of lung cancer in clinical specimens. It involves a variety of molecular techniques, including plasma DNA assays, and DNA microarray analyses. Experimental tumour immunology geared towards an improved understanding of anti-tumour immune responses and developing anti-tumour vaccines is also being researched.
The Swiss group for Clinical Cancer Research (SAKK) carries out multicentre clinical trials for cancer research. In the context of a mandate from the Swiss Confederation, the SAKK functions like a decentralised university research institute. It carries out clinical trials in the major Swiss hospitals and collaborates with other research groups throughout the world. Its aim is to improve cancer therapies and evaluate tolerance and efficacy of new therapies.
There is a real unmet medical need to find more accurate diagnostics and better treatments for the different kinds of cancer. Several start-ups in the BioAlps cluster focus on novel approaches. Diagnoplex is leveraging its proprietary molecular platform capabilities to develop non-invasive cancer screening tests.
Its lead programme targets colorectal cancer (CRC). Xigen’s strategy is to identify important control elements (hubs) for major debilitating diseases including cancer. The company uses its proprietary technologies (intracellular transport and molecular design) to produce specific, persistent, intracellular inhibitory peptides. Xigen ICPT™ allows efficient intracellular delivering of compounds that otherwise penetrate the cell membrane poorly. In many cases, the efficiency of transport is sufficient to achieve intracellular concentrations leading to biological activity. Melcure is targeting metastatic melanoma by identifying the ERTB receptors involved in melanoma.
Med Discovery is a dedicated to the discovery and the development of highly specific treatments for uro-genital cancers. The company develops protein drugs based on the optimization of natural proteins involved in the regulation of biological pathways.
To achieve this, MedDiscovery are leveraging unique in-house expertise in kallikreins, the biggest class of human proteases. TopoTarget (OMX: TOPO) is a biotech company with a marketed product in both Europe and the US and a broad late stage clinical pipeline containing eight products dedicated to the development and commercialisation of improved treatments for cancer patients, and other cancer-related disorders.
Among the larger companies based in the life science cluster of Western Switzerland, sanofi-aventis, UCB Farchim, Baxter and Celgene are all involved in R&D to find new treatments for different kinds of cancer, as well as marketing current treatments. Merck Serono is developing novel, cancer-specific therapies that provide beneficial therapeutic outcomes and create new options for cancer patients.
The company’s monoclonal antibody, Erbitux, specifically blocks the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) to enhance the effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Debiopharm, a privately owned company, has developed several molecules to treat cancer and has more projects in its pipeline: platinum micellar nanoparticles, LPA receptors antagonist and Raf1-Rb inhibitor, among others.