Every year more than 275,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed in Spain and approximately 110,000 people die from this cause. These figures place tumors as one of the most frequent diseases among the population and one of the main causes of mortality in our society today. In this sense, research in this field plays a key role in reducing them. Today, September 24, Vall d'Hebron joins the World Cancer Research Day to highlight the work of researchers around the world to answer major questions and challenges in the field of oncology.
An example of the commitment to cancer research is the work carried out at the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) and the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Research (VHIR). Organized in research groups specialized in different aspects within the oncology field, research advances every day to understand the biological mechanisms of the different types of cancer, as well as to improve the survival and quality of life of patients. "In recent years, we have progressed in our knowledge of the molecular biology of cancer and this has allowed us to learn more about the disease and has helped us to develop personalized treatments, since the disease manifests differently in each person. Thanks to this knowledge and to scientific and technological advances, innovative drugs have been developed and have had a clear impact on the quality of life of the patients",explains Dr. Josep Tabernero, head of the Medical Oncology Department at Vall d'Hebron University Hospital and director of VHIO.
Although during the pandemic efforts have concentrated on COVID-19, cancer research has not stopped. "The pandemic has been a revolution in terms of work strategies, the way we relate to each other, safety protocols, relocation of resources.... and the results show that the groups have had a great capacity to adapt", says Dr. Anna Santamaria, coordinator of the Oncology area and head of the Biomedical Research in Urology group at VHIR. In fact, despite the adverse conditions, during 2020 researchers at Vall d’Hebron Campus published 563 articles on cancer in scientific journals. In terms of ongoing clinical trials, at the end of the year there were 851.
Vall d'Hebron also promotes outreach to disseminate the projects it is working on. Thus, researchers participate in conferences to explain to the general public the latest developments in the field of oncology, such as the Science Festival, held last June, or the European Research Night, which is celebrated today. In addition, this year, for World Cancer Day (celebrated on February 4), Vall d'Hebron organized a session to analyze the present and future of this pathology.
VHIO: a center with 27 groups dedicated to cancer research
The VHIO is a reference center in personalized medicine in oncology. Thanks to a leading model in multidisciplinary and translational research and its participation in consortia and projects with other prestigious centers around the world, it has positioned itself as one of the most important integral centers in Europe capable of transforming, in record time, the latest discoveries in laboratory research into early clinical trials and, as a consequence, into new therapeutic opportunities.
VHIO's research teams are divided into three programs with 26 groups that approach cancer research from different perspectives: Preclinical and Translational Research, Clinical Research and Transversal Technologies. Its work includes the development of clinical trials, which each year involve more than 1,400 patients at Vall d'Hebron Hospital, representing more than 30% of the center's oncology patients. At the end of 2020, there were 791 active trials, 256 of which were in early stages at the Molecular Cancer Therapy Research Unit (UITM) - CaixaResearch of the VHIO. Within the UITM-CaixaResearch, this means 140 more patients treated compared to the previous year.
Among the most important examples of VHIO's progress is the start of the Omomyc clinical trial last May. The aim of this Phase I-IIa clinical trial is to evaluate the safety of treatment with Omomyc (OMO-103) in humans and to see if it achieves the same results as in animal models, in which it has shown that it may be a better therapeutic option in terms of results and side effects, especially in some types of cancer such as non-small cell lung cancer. Also this year, the first clinical trial in Spain has been approved with an innovative cell therapy against cancer, based on the so-called TIL cells (Tumour-infiltrating Lymphocytes), a type of lymphocyte that recognizes cells found in the tumor and, when reactivated in the laboratory, can recognize and destroy cancer cells.
In terms of preclinical research, it is worth highlighting the development of a minimally invasive method, using liquid biopsy, which makes it possible to predict how brain metastases will respond to immunotherapy. Specifically, the cells of the immune system in the cerebrospinal fluid are analyzed.
Eight groups at VHIR working to advance on the disease
Cancer is one of the areas of research interest at VHIR. The Oncology area is formed by eight groups working on different types of tumors and approaches: digestive tract tumors, gynecology, melanoma, urology, childhood and adolescent cancer, cancer stem cells, drug delivery and targeting and translational molecular pathology. All working towards the same goal: to study the main aspects that we still have to resolve in this field.
The projects in which the researchers are working are many and very diverse: from basic science aspects to the most clinical research that is closer to the patients. As an example of one of the last basic research studies of VHIR, which we published last August, is the work that demonstrated the efficacy of a new therapeutic system developed with nanoparticles against breast cancer stem cells.
Regarding clinical research, at the end of 2020, the Oncology area had 60 clinical trials underway that evaluate the efficacy and safety of different interventions and treatments. And it was just this year that the results of the PROFAST clinical trial were presented, which demonstrated the efficacy of the enhanced recovery after surgery (ERAS) protocol for patients with advanced ovarian cancer. In addition, Vall d'Hebron not only works to improve the evolution of the disease, but also investigates to reduce the sequelae and improve the quality of life after treatment. This is the case of the "Riding for Life" project, currently underway, which studies the benefits of rehabilitation with horses in the recovery of children once they have completed cancer therapy.
To move forward with research, the support of entities such as the Spanish Association Against Cancer (AECC), which promotes innovative research projects in oncology, is essential. Recently, it has supported the "Riding for Life" project and has also collaborated in the development of a new model to study metastasis that allows a faster and more affordable preliminary analysis.
Sometimes, the research carried out at VHIR goes a step further with the creation of spin-offs. In the field of oncology, the birth of MiMARK, which aims to promote the development of a rapid and inexpensive molecular diagnostic system for endometrial cancer, WomEC, was presented at the beginning of 2021. The project was one of the winners of EITHealth's Wild Card 2020 program, where it received €1.5M in funding.
We also remind you that your support is essential to keep research alive. At Vall d'Hebron we continue working to find solutions and cures for people suffering from a disease, such as cancer. You are essential to continue advancing in improving the quality of life of our patients. Make it possible with your donation at https://vhc.cat/dona.