Medical oncologist Christian Blank appointed professor in Leiden


Immunotherapy for melanoma patients can be better adapted to the individual, according to medical oncologist Christian Blank. He investigates what kind of push the immune system needs to attack ocular melanomas. Blank has been appointed professor in internal medicine, with a focus on clinical research into immunotherapy against cancer. The research chair has been established by the Netherlands Cancer Institute.

Blank has spent several years researching checkpoint inhibitors as a treatment for certain tumors. He tries to use these inhibitors as a treatment when illness is still at an early stage. “Our immune cells can recognize and clean up certain tumor cells. But they also have these little switches on the surface through which other cells can control their behavior. Tumor cells like to turn these immune cells ‘off’ by flicking those switches, which will allow them uninhibited growth.”

Perfect music.

“By applying these checkpoint inhibitors, we can block the switches that tell the immune cells to stop. This will keep them active so they can attack the tumor.” There are 20 to 30 drugs being developed that all block a different stop signal from the tumor cells. This type of immunotherapy has proven to be effective in treatment for skin melanoma, but ocular melanomas, melanomas in the eye, do not respond well to it.

Blank wants to find the combination of inhibitors that does prove effective for ocular melanomas. “It’s like directing an orchestra. We want to find out which signal will have to be transmitted at what point to have the orchestra create the most perfect music – which in this case is a powerful response against the tumor.”

Personalized medicine

Blank also hopes to further personalize therapies for skin melanoma. “Together with my colleagues at LUMC, I hope to identify biomarkers that can predict which patients will respond to which combination of immunotherapies.” Besides these activities, he will focus on the long term effects of these therapies and patients’ survivorship. “We hope to eventually be able to act sooner to prevent problems down the line.”

Powerful collaboration

Blank works at the Netherlands Cancer Institute as a medical oncologist and research leader. His new appointment as professor by special appointment will allow him to merge the NKI’s expertise with that of LUMC. “LUMC is the primary ocular melanoma center in the Netherlands and, has a strong preclinical tumor immunology research line, just like the Netherlands Cancer Institute which also has a lot of experience with neoadjuvant trials. Together we can successfully collaborate on the development of personalized combination therapies, and design trials for patients who do not benefit from our current combination immunotherapies.” 

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