When researchers join forces in the fight against cancer
It’s often said that scientists and doctors are “waging war” against cancer. This kind of bellicose talk often frames discussions around a disease that affects more than 40,000 people and claims close to 17,000 lives in Switzerland each year. Mortality rates have fallen significantly over the past three decades, suggesting that battles are being won. But cancer, in its various forms, is still one of the leading causes of death globally. In 2021, Pierre-Yves Dietrich, the retired former head of oncology at Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), warned that winning the war against cancer would require a “collective effort” from experts in every branch of medicine and life science: “Tackling cancer is an enormous challenge requiring skills and expertise that surpass the sometimes rigid confines of disciplines, facilities, institutes and cantons.”
The need for a novel approach was one reason behind the opening of the Swiss Cancer Center Léman (SCCL). It serves as an alliance of institutes in the Lake Geneva region: the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the University of Lausanne (UNIL), EPFL, Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and Geneva University Hospital (HUG). It’s a place where pure and applied researchers, clinicians, and frontline medical staff work jointly, share discoveries and advance science and medicine for the benefit of patient care, with a particular focus on promising immunotherapies. “When it comes to cancer treatment, no single lab or research field has all the answers,” says Elisa Oricchio, who heads EPFL’s Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC). “Combating the disease necessarily requires a cross-disciplinary effort. That’s what makes the Lake Geneva region unique: it’s home to forward-thinking engineers, medical experts with deep insight into clinical issues, and biologists who understand how tumors grow and behave. Nowhere else can you find people spanning these three skillsets all in one place, which is why our capacity for innovation is unparalleled.” In October 2022, Oricchio joined the SCCL executive committee alongside Olivier Michielin and Georges Coukos,heads of oncology at HUG and UNIL-CHUV, respectively.
The AGORA Translational Cancer Research Center, in Lausanne. © Fondation ISREC
Strength in numbers
To concretize this collaboration, a building, contemporary to the creation of the SCCL, has been put to good use: the AGORA Translational Cancer Research Center, opened by the ISREC Foundation in 2018 and conveniently located opposite CHUV in Lausanne. The ultra-modern five-story building allow for the meeting of specialties and the fusion of ideas. Scientists and doctors in white lab coats rub shoulders in the cafeteria, while the office doors bear affiliations with UNIL, UNIGE, EPFL and more – testament to the Center’s unique membership structure and its breadth of expertise. “The AGORA building was designed with cross-disciplinary collaboration in mind,” says Denis Migliorini, head of neuro-oncology at HUG. "There are meeting areas on each floor, the labs are open, the benchs are close to each other. This encourages interaction." Migliorini splits his time between treating brain tumor patients at the Geneva hospital and conducting research at his SCCL lab, where his group is developing cellular therapies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy. The AGORA building is always a hive of activity, and its lecture hall regularly hosts meetings, talks and progress updates from research groups at the Center’s member institutes.
Prof. Denis Migliorini in his lab at Agora, in February 2023. © Rémi Carlier, EPFL
What makes SCCL so special is its network – physical and virtual. Once a year, it hosts a conference attended by medical students, PhD students, interns and professors from Geneva and Lausanne, who present their work, discuss recent advancements and forge new collaborative relationships. At the most recent event, held in late 2022, Migliorini met Nicola Vannini, who leads research at UNIL’s Department of Oncology. Together, they embarked on a joint project. “We were lucky to meet one another,” says Vannini. “My work focuses on stem cell and immune cell aging. I wanted to explore how this aging process could affect CAR T-cell therapies. I’m not an expert in this immunotherapy method, but it’s something Denis is working on in his lab. In a nutshell, he’ll examine how to target the therapy to tumors, and I’ll explore ways to make the cells he uses more adaptive.”
This is just one of many fruitful collaborative relationships to emerge from SCCL, as evidenced by the numerous joint papers published by its members. Together with EPFL professors Andrea Ablasser and Bruno Correia, Migliorini was recently awarded a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) grant to support research on enhancing the efficacy of CAR T-cell therapy, a method that targets the innate immunity of tumors.
Harnessing collaborative potential
The new SCCL leadership team, which oversees cross-institute initiatives, is eager to do more to tap into the potential of collaboration. “We’re currently exploring how to strengthen clinical ties among EPFL, UNIGE and CHUV,” says Oricchio. “Our idea is to consolidate and harmonize all the data generated at hospitals and in labs, and make them available as a service to scientists and clinicians. In our lab, for instance, we generate a lot of preclinical data. Clinicians could use this information to decide which therapy to use for specific patients, and vice versa. When you talk about clinical data today, it is complicated, we still have boundaries that are linked to legal constrains. The SCCL framework can facilitate the information flow. ”
Nicolas Vannini in his lab, in February 2023. © Rémi Carlier, EPFL
The idea of pooling resources and expertise across institutes has already proven successful in the United States. The research groups in Geneva and Lausanne have decided to follow suit. “Getting clinicians and pure researchers working together more closely can only be a good thing – for patients and for the development of new treatments,” says Migliorini. Vannini adds: “I don’t know if we’ll win the war against cancer, because every tumor is different. But the knowledge and expertise we have at SCCL leaves us better equipped to fight the disease one patient at a time.”