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Cancer screening specialist honored in Vienna

At a ceremony in Vienna on June 20th, this year’s European Inventor Award honored the inventor of a diagnostic tool that assesses the risk of relapse in cancer patients.

Every year the European Inventor Award sheds light on inventors whose pioneering findings have provided answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. In the medical technology sector, category research, the French immunologist Jérôme Galon was the winner.

Galon has developed a diagnostic tool that helps medical staff predict the chances of recovery and risks of relapse in cancer patients based on the strength of their immune response. The test, Immunoscore, uses digital images of tumor samples and advanced software to measure the number of positive immune cells found at tumor sites, and is already in use at clinics around the world to improve the accuracy of prognosis for patients with colorectal cancer.

“Jérôme Galon’s invention has had a major impact in the field of oncology,” said EPO President António Campinos. “It has already prompted the re-examination of cancer classification schemes and could ultimately give rise to new treatments. By launching a start-up and successfully using patents to commercialize his invention, Galon is bringing the technology to market so that his research efforts can make a difference where it counts most – in helping people.”

Effective therapies without over-treating

Jérôme Galon broke new ground in cancer diagnostics in 2006. He showed that the strength of each patient’s immune system plays a key role in successfully fighting the condition. Galon patented his invention, an in-vitro diagnostic tool that quantifies the immune response of colon cancer patients at the site of the tumor. Independent researchers have since found that Immunoscore provides the most reliable prognostic to date for the risk of recurrence in solid cancers.

“When I started working on cancer, the field was mostly focused on tumor cells,” Galon says.

“But as an immunologist it was clear to me that the immune system plays a major role as well. By knowing how active his or her immune system is, we can predict if a cancer patient is at high risk or low risk of recurrence. This enables doctors to not only classify cancers more precisely, but also to give patients the most effective therapies, without over-treating them.”

Immunoscore works by analyzing a small tissue sample that is surgically removed from the primary tumor of a patient. It monitors the cancer site, counting immune ‘cytotoxic’ T cells, which destroy cancerous or virally-infected cells. The more of these immune cells present in the tumor, the better the patient’s chances of survival. To conduct the test a specialized scanner takes digital images of the tumor sample on which the software counts the number of positive immune cells. An algorithm then calculates an overall Immunoscore for the patient based on T cell concentrations. This provides doctors with greater insight into both the severity of the cancer, and the risk of patients relapsing and dying in different stages of treatment.

The test has been approved for use in colorectal cancer, where it has shown a 95% likelihood of predicting the overall survival of cancer patients, and has also reduced the unnecessary exposure of low-risk patients to toxic drugs.

Transforming basic research into real life

To bring his invention to market, Galon co-founded the Marseille-based company HalioDx in 2014. Over the past five years the company has grown to around 160 employees and raised more than EUR 26 million in financing. The company has partnered with medical distributors, including Philips, to share the benefits of Galon’s patented invention with more patients.

“It is very rewarding to transform basic research into real life,” Galon says. “The company was supported by venture capital from the start, and investors looked hard at how deep and broad their patents were. Without the patents I would not have been able to raise the capital needed.”

Galon trained as an immunologist at the Pasteur Institute and the Curie Institute in Paris and he received his PhD in immunology from Jussieu University in Paris in 1996. After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health in the US, Galon returned to Paris in 2001 to run a research group funded by INSERM. Today he is Director of Research at INSERM and head of the Laboratory of Integrative Cancer Immunology at the Cordeliers Research Center.

Source: EPO press release. Photo: Heinz Troll