The example of the IMMUcan project

European initiatives (Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, European Health Data Space), conferences and seminars are now increasingly focusing, in one way or another, on the notion of “personalised medicine”. But what exactly lies behind this concept? Let’s take a closer look at the notion of personalised medicine through the example of the IMMUcan project, an Innovative Health Initiative (IHI) public-private partnership, which aims to determine more tailored therapeutic options for cancer patients.

What is actually personalised medicine?

If there is no commonly agreed definition of the term personalised medicine (or precision medicine), it is widely understood that personalised medicine uses “characterisation of individuals’ phenotypes and genotypes (e.g. molecular profiling, medical imaging, lifestyle data) for tailoring the right therapeutic strategy”[1]. In other words, personalised medicine is about providing “the right drug to the right patients in the right clinical settings”, as Dr. Henoch Hong, Associate Director at the Merck Group and industry lead for the project, points out.

The aim of personalised medicine is to offer more appropriate treatments, i.e. more effective treatments with fewer side effects[2], and it is therefore a global concept that has an impact on prevention, diagnosis, treatment, the design of clinical studies and data-driven healthcare. For example, in terms of treatment, the discovery of “biomarkers [a biomarker being a measurable indicator of a biological state or condition, for example pulse and blood pressure are biomarkers]  will make it possible to match patients to a treatment with the best chances of response while minimising the risks of toxicity” as Dr. Marie Morfouace, academic scientific lead of the project, explains.

The potential of personalised medicine described above has naturally attracted the attention of the European institutions, which are supporting this scientific development through various initiatives. An important initiative is Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, generally presented as the EU’s renewed commitment to address cancer and whose aim is to “build on the promise of personalised medicine for cancer”[3]. Another European file is the European Health Data Space, currently under discussion, which could make a major contribution to meeting the need of personalised medicine for access to large and interoperable data, in particular genetic data. Finally, the European institutions are also funding research for personalised medicine, for instance through frameworks such as Horizon Europe and the Innovative Health Initiative (IHI)[4]. According to Stephane Lejeune, EORTC and IMMUcan project coordinator, joint ventures – such as IHI, which is part-funding the IMMUcan project – are important because they involve both academia and industry, enabling the considerable effort needed to better understand tumour biology and ultimately pave the way for better therapies for cancer patients.

The IMMUcan project, personalised medicine in practice

IMMUcan, which stands for ‘Integrated iMMUnoprofiling of large adaptive CANcer patient cohorts’, is a consortium composed by 18 academic organisations from European countries, 1 patient organisation, 2 SME and 9 pharmaceutical companies. 3000 patients with colorectal, lung, head & neck, breast, and renal cancers were already recruited. In this respect, such an ambitious project was only made possible by the excellence of the consortium supported by EORTC clinical research infrastructure and network explained Marie-Sophie Robert, EORTC project manager for IMMUcan.

In terms of content, the consortium aims to answer the following question: why do some patients respond to cancer treatments, while others don’t? The project is based on the analysis that every patient reacts differently to treatment. For instance, the majority of cancer patients do not benefit from immunotherapies (primary resistance) or present with only short-term benefit (secondary resistance). The difference in the composition of the tumour mircoenvironnement (TME) might play a role in how patients respond to cancer treatments.

So, as Drs. Henoch Hong and Marie Morfouace explained, the project generates detailed molecular and cellular profiles from patient tumours in relatively large cohorts in order to gain a better understanding of the tumour mircoenvironment (TME) and identify biomarkers; the latter enable more tailored treatments, as mentioned above.

Through a better understanding of the tumour microenvironment, the IMMUcan consortium aims to determine which cancer patients are most likely to respond to immunotherapy, compared with those who require a combination of immunotherapy and conventional treatment. The ultimate goal of the project is therefore to continue to improve treatments and identify new, more tailored and personalised therapeutic options for cancer patients.

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