Immunotherapy: A treatment for cancer?

A young researcher from Hong Kong has recently released a groundbreaking study that legitimises immunotherapy as a cancer treatment.

by Portia Ladrido

Dr. Chow Kwan Ting, a young researcher from the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. © CityU

COVID-19 has stopped most countries in their tracks. The vulnerabilities of healthcare systems have been laid bare, exposing the already fraught conditions that are still not properly addressed. With COVID-19 as the centre of attention in the healthcare sector in recent months, many researches and programs for other illnesses and diseases were put by the wayside.

However, it must be recognised that more people are still suffering from illnesses other than COVID-19. Cancer, for instance, remains the leading cause of death worldwide. While the world is still grappling with COVID-19 and seeking remedies and vaccines, there has been little triumphs in cancer research that we cannot help but share.

Dr. Chow Kwan Ting, a young researcher from the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, has recently released a study that focuses on immunotherapeutic strategy as a way to treat certain types of lymphoma and leukaemia. Her research has been approved for clinical use overseas.

INKLINE caught up with Dr. Ting to know more about the groundbreaking study, the significance of the research, and her word of advice for aspiring scientists.

The research team from the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. © CityU

INKLINE: Cancer immunotherapy has known to be increasingly popular in recent years. What do you think are the factors that led to this?

Dr. Chow Kwan Ting: Traditional therapies such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy often cause severe toxic side effects. Moreover, many cancers are refractory to these types of treatment. Also, in the past, many drugs were often out of reach for elderly patients because the harsh side effects were considered too big a risk for people who are frail or suffering from other health conditions. Immunotherapy offers new hope and has been shown to be very effective for some previously incurable cancers. Compared to chemotherapy, immunotherapy drugs have proven to be relatively mild, rendering them more accessible to a wide range of patients.

I: Can you explain the significant findings of your research?

C: We study immune cell function in the context of cancer. Often we think of one cell type as having one specific function. But we found that a cell can take on many roles depending on the situation. The same cell, if put in different contexts, will behave differently, which means there is potential to induce a cell to perform different functions if we know what the cues are. Specifically for immune cells, we study a cell type that has long been known as a fierce virus fighter.

As soon as it detects the presence of viruses, it churns out a copious amount of antiviral molecules that inhibit the growth and spread of the virus. But we found that if we give it a different danger signal that is not a virus, it can respond by producing other types of molecules to combat the specific danger at hand. This versatility gives us a way to use the same cell type to combat different kinds of danger. We are now trying to learn the cues that will allow us to instruct these cells to effectively fight cancer.

Unlike traditional cancer therapies that kill cancer cells and often healthy cells as well, immunotherapy wakes up our immune system to fight cancer, eliminating many devastating side effects.

I: What urged you to take on this research?

C: I have always been amazed by our immune system. From viruses to parasitic worms and everything in between, it protects us from harm that is numerous, diverse, and vastly different in nature every minute of the day. The battle it fights with a respiratory virus is very different from a worm that lives in our gut. So how does it detect the presence of these invaders, recognises them as dangerous, and mounts a specific immune response that targets the danger at hand? Now we know that the immune system doesn’t just fight foreign invaders, it also combats cancer that arises from our own body.

Several of my family members including my grandfather, aunt, uncle, and cousin, passed away from cancer. And my first job as a technician in a pediatric oncology lab allowed me to witness how devastating and debilitating childhood cancers could be, not only to the patients themselves but to the family as well. So I am very motivated to understand how the immune system fights cancer so that we can devise new immunotherapy to help cancer patients. 

“Compared to chemotherapy, immunotherapy drugs have proven to be relatively mild, rendering them more accessible to a wide range of patients.” —Dr. Ting © CityU

I: What do you hope for the layperson to understand about your research?

C: Unlike traditional cancer therapies that kill cancer cells and often healthy cells as well, immunotherapy wakes up our immune system to fight cancer, eliminating many devastating side effects. Our goal is to understand the optimal way of stimulating the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer effectively. Many types of immunotherapy are becoming available to fight different types of cancers. But for some cancers, the efficacy is quite modest, and for others, there is still no cure. Our goal is to improve current immunotherapy and design new ones to add to the arsenal, especially for currently incurable cancers.

Keep your eyes on the bigger picture and remember that even tiny steps can accumulate to substantial progress that can benefit humanity.

I: What gives you hope about this study?

C: Immunotherapy is a very promising next-generation cancer therapy, but there is still a lot that we don’t understand. With any research project you never know what you set out to do is going to pan out in the end, but in my opinion that is never a good enough reason not to try something that has the potential to benefit a lot of people. We are applying our knowledge in immunity and cancer biology, collaborating with many experts and clinicians in the field, and we are hopeful that collectively we will make headway that eventually leads to better immunotherapy options for patients.

I: What message can you give to young aspiring scientists?

C: Science is hard, but keep at it! It is one of the most interesting jobs you can get. Every day you are asking questions that no one knows the answer to. When you design an experiment and generate a piece of data, you’re possibly the first and only one on the planet who has this piece of information. There will be many failed experiments and endless troubleshooting. You will be frustrated and you will want to give up. But try to keep your eyes on the bigger picture and remember that even tiny steps can accumulate to substantial progress that can benefit humanity.

Share the positive!