Laboratory at the Institute of Molecular Biology

Inside Cancer. What precision medicine can do

Our knowledge of how cancer develops and functions is getting more and more sophisticated. Precision medicine enables therapies that are more targeted, less aggressive and increasingly successful.

By Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl; translated by Philip Isler

In Zurich, people are working today on the medicine of the future. This report will take us on a journey of precision medicine at UZH and the University’s hospitals. We will learn about how innovative researchers and clinicians think and work. While scientists may do so in very distinct ways, they all share the same goal: They want to increase their understanding of serious diseases and in this way make treatments more targeted and gentle.

Medical research is making tremendous headway, and this cannot only be credited to medical doctors, but also to basic researchers such as biologists and geneticists. The knowledge generated in their labs allows us to understand diseases such as cancer from within, so to speak. With their complex analyses, which today increasingly rely on the computer-aided evaluation of large volumes of data, they have shown that different tumors that at first glance may appear identical can have completely separate biological causes. It is this kind of knowledge that makes it possible to determine the most suitable type of therapy, laying the groundwork for developing new, targeted treatment options.

Curing serious diseases?

In the past, this type of research was often referred to collectively as personalized medicine. Nowadays, the term precision medicine is generally preferred. The reasons for this terminological shift is that medicine has always been personal, i.e. tailored to the needs of patients. But thanks to recent technological advances and computer-aided methods, it is now becoming more and more precise when it comes to making diagnoses and defining treatments.

Progress in all these fields has already led to some success in treating many illnesses which until only recently had been considered incurable, in particular when it comes to cancer. Unfortunately, not all patients benefit from this development, since effective treatments are only available for a small number of cancer types. There are promising new advances in immunotherapy, which could supplement and possibly even replace conventional forms of chemotherapy. They are based on the idea of conditioning the body’s own immune system so that it will recognize and eliminate cancer cells. So far only a few of these therapies have been approved, and their side effects can be fierce and their costs prohibitive. The challenges of the years ahead include making these therapies efficient and safe enough for them to be introduced on a wider scale. 

On our journey through UZH’s precision medicine, we met with five scientists and observed them at work. They represent the many outstanding researchers who treat people with severe diseases and whose work is focused on achieving medical progress at UZH and in the University’s hospitals:

For example, immunologist Burkhard Becher can define complex blood profiles that provide insights into whether or not a specific cancer therapy is likely to be successful.

Quantitative biologist Bernd Bodenmiller generates images of tissue that show how (cancer) cells interact and communicate with each other, enabling new treatment methods to be developed.

Pediatrician Nicole Bodmer treats children suffering from leukemia at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich. Many of her patients today can be cured.

Hematologist Markus Manz also treats blood cancer patients at the UniversityHospital Zurich. He has high hopes for the new immunotherapies and wants to investigate and improve them in a large-scale study.

And medical geneticist Anita Rauch performs sophisticated genetic analyses. “Precise diagnoses are a small victory on the path towards tailored therapies,” she says.