Years of research for a new cancer medicine

Heleen Dewitte

At Ghent University, many researchers work hard each day to improve cancer treatment and thus extend our life expectation. However, research takes time. Tremendous time. And money. Postdoctoral research Dr. Heleen Dewitte knows all about it. Thanks to CRIG, the Cancer Research Institute Ghent, she is able to continue her promising research.

Cancer research starts in a lab. For Heleen too. This is where she studies ways to activate the patient’s immune system in certain types of cancer. Heleen: “Thanks to your immune system you can fight off anything unhealthy in the body. Like the flu virus. Your immune system can help you beat cancer too.”

Stubborn tumours

It’s important that the immune system remains active for long enough, in order to react to the tumour. This is easier said than done, as a tumour is stubborn and often manages to bypass the reaction or keep concealed from the immune system. Heleen: “So we aim to resolve this.”

CRIG grant for young researchers

Heleen and her colleagues have developed a particle that may be an effective medicine. She now continues her research into that particle using a grant from the cancer league Kom op Tegen Kanker. However, to gain such a grant you must first produce some results. Not an easy task, because even early experiments are really costly. Heleen: “Particularly because you need to work with appropriate materials, and these are all very expensive.” Meanwhile, she is also working on a new study and has received a YIPOC grant from CRIG. This Young Investigator Proof of Concept grant specifically targets young postdoctoral researchers. It gave Heleen nine months to validate her idea. Heleen: “The grant is of tremendous value for my research.”

This is very time consuming. There are many ups and downs. We have now developed something that looks promising and which we can take further.

Process that can take ten years

Heleen and her colleagues have already been working on the research for several years. Heleen: “What we do is preclinical research. This is very time consuming. There are many ups and downs. We have now developed something that looks promising and which we can take further.” Even so, the research is likely to last another four years or so before it is complete. Only then can we continue with a clinical study. This is when the medicine is first administered to patients. And then it can still take years before the medicine is actually launched. Heleen: “It is a process that can easily take ten years. That’s a long time. But I believe it’s justified. You need to be entirely sure that something works before you start applying it. The patient’s safety is paramount.”

There are many cancer researchers like Heleen, who work to keep cancer at bay in patients for longer. They are benefiting from new technologies to develop more targeted and efficient therapy. But this all takes tremendous amounts of time and money.

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