Childhood Cancer Switzerland presents sponsorship award - 2024 - News - Current - Kinderkrebsschweiz

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Childhood Cancer Switzerland presents sponsorship award

The official award ceremony took place in Bern on 26 June 2024. The award endowed with CHF 30,000 went to Caroline Piccand from Bern University Hospital. Her innovative research project aims to develop a novel immunotherapy for rhabdomyosarcomas (RMS). RMS are among the most common malignant soft tissue tumours in children and adolescents.

With this annual award, the umbrella organisation honours young scientists who engage in outstanding and pioneering projects in basic research at Swiss research institutes or hospitals.

Childhood Cancer Switzerland conducted an interview with Caroline Piccand about her research project.  

Ms Piccand, what exactly are rhabdomyosarcomas and why are they the subject of your research?

Rhabdomyosarcomas belong to the group of what are referred to as soft-tissue sarcomas. These rare and malignant tumours can develop in soft tissues such as muscles, connective tissue, nerves, blood and lymph vessels as well as fatty tissue. Rhabdomyosarcomas are the most common soft-tissue tumours in childhood and are difficult to cure. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories: a very aggressive form and a less aggressive form. Due to their high toxicity, current therapies have very severe side effects and long-term consequences for patients. Unfortunately, the prognosis for the highly aggressive variant, in which metastases form, is poor. Our research project therefore aims to develop a new kind of therapy for rhabdomyosarcomas.

You are working on the development of a new type of immunotherapy. How does such a therapy work?

Cancer cells are very adaptable and can circumvent the immune system. This allows them to grow unhindered. This is precisely where modern forms of therapy come in. These therapies enable the patient’s immune cells to see through the cancer cells’ game of hide-and-seek and attack them in a targeted manner. For our research project, we use what is referred to as the CAR-T cell therapy. In this novel treatment approach, the patient’s own defence cells are genetically modified in the laboratory and injected back into the body, where they can permanently destroy the cancer. This is why we also speak of targeted or personalised medicine. CAR T-cell therapy is already being used successfully in children with leukaemia. In the laboratory, we are now investigating whether this innovative technology is also suitable for the treatment of solid tumours such as rhabdomyosarcomas.

Where do you currently stand with your research project?

The research results to date are very promising. We were able to show that our CAR-T cells have a high anti-tumour efficacy and no visible signs of side effects. This suggests that they are safe and may be suitable for treatment. However, before the project can be officially approved as a new kind of treatment strategy for rhabdomyosarcomas, it must first be validated in clinical trials. I am very confident though that we are on the right track. We can’t develop effective therapies until we understand how tumour cells function and develop during the course of the disease. The prize money from Childhood Cancer Switzerland will help us with the next stage, which involves analysing individual tumour types and identifying specific patterns in order to target them more effectively.

Why is basic research important and what are the biggest challenges?

Basic research is an important first step on the way to the patient. After all, every drug, every treatment, every remedy must first be developed in the laboratory before it is tested in clinical trials and then officially authorised. As far as rhabdomyosarcomas are concerned, some progress has been made in recent decades thanks to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but the metastatic forms of this aggressive type of cancer are still difficult to treat and it is essential to improve the existing forms of therapy. In Switzerland, we are unfortunately faced with the challenge that childhood cancer research has too few resources. But if we as a society want patients as vulnerable as children to receive the best possible therapies, we need to invest more in research. Funding from organisations such as Childhood Cancer Switzerland is helping us, but we still have a long way to go.

What motivates you most about your work?

Our laboratory is located directly in the children’s hospital. That's why I have regular contact with young cancer patients in my work and the individual fates are often very close to my heart. Being able to help them is the greatest motivation for me. As a scientist, I have always been interested in the subject of cancer, and I feel it is very unfair that innocent children have to suffer from such a malignant disease. If my research results can one day help to ensure that more of these children are cured and have a better quality of life with the help of new therapies, that will make me very happy.