Immune therapy is considered a milestone in the battle against metastasised malignant melanoma. However, these treatments do not work effectively for every patient. Prof. Dr. Lucie Heinzerling, attending physician at the Department of Dermatology, Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, hopes that conducting a study will lead to new methods being developed for treating these patients. Together with colleagues from the university hospitals in Regensburg and Würzburg, the head of dermo-oncology at the Department of Dermatology in Erlangen is investigating whether a combination of immune therapy and chemotherapy could be effective in such instances. She has received funding of 581,775 euros from the cancer research foundation Stiftung Deutsche Krebshilfe.
More than 20,000 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma every year in Germany. If this aggressive cancer is not recognised and treated in time, it can metastasise into other organs. The introduction of immune therapy using what is known as an immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) has led to groundbreaking success, not only with metastasised melanoma but also with other tumours as well. The checkpoint inhibitors boost the cells’ immune reaction, assisting the body’s own targeted immune mechanisms in the battle against cancer cells. ‘However, a large number of patients do not respond to treatment with checkpoint inhibitors. These are the people we hope to help by developing new treatments,’ explains Prof. Lucie Heinzerling, who has been researching immune therapies for more than 20 years, in particular with reference to melanoma and lymphoma patients.
The concept for the current study which was developed together with PD Dr. Sebastian Haferkamp (Universitätsklinikum Regensburg), Prof. Dr. Bastian Schilling (Universitätsklinikum Würzburg) and Prof. Dr. Anja Boßerhoff (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg) is based on the clinical observation that chemotherapy and immune therapy may prove more effective if used in conjunction for patients who are resistant to treatment using ICB. ‘This is what we would like to test with our study by first giving patients with metastasised melanoma who have proven resistant to checkpoint inhibitors a course of safe and well-tolerated monochemotherapy, followed by a combined ICB,’ explains Prof. Lucie Heinzerling. A total of 581,775 euros in funding for the project provided by the Stiftung Deutsche Krebshilfe means that the project can be implemented in all three locations: Erlangen, Regensburg and Würzburg. ‘We hope that the new approach will not only help melanoma patients who have proven resistant to immune therapy,’ stresses Prof. Heinzerling. ‘Taking melanoma as a model tumour, we hope that the study will also provide us with important insights into the mechanisms behind resistance which can then be transferred to other types of tumour.’