On 21 and 22 September Venice hosted the thirteenth edition of the future of science, a series of conferences of the Umberto Veronesi Foundation in which Professor Alberto Mantovani, Scientific Director of Humanitas, also took part, with a speech on the role of the immune system in the fight against various diseases, including cancer. This theme was also the subject of an editorial by Professor Mantovani published in Repubblica.

The World Health Organization has recently identified old and new microbes that pose a threat to human health. Science and scientific research are therefore a safety belt for mankind, because it is thanks to them that we can hope to combat these threats effectively. “And immunological weapons – including vaccines – constitute one of the fundamental bastions for our defense”, writes Prof. Mantovani.


The role of vaccines

We are constantly exposed to microbial agents that become resistant to drugs and that spread even to places far away from where they first appeared, due to the globalization of society and the greater frequency of travel. This is the case with the Zika virus, Chikungunya and Ebola. “We must think of the diseases of the poorest countries as our own. Moreover, we need to be prepared to deal with them, with containment, drugs and vaccines.

We do not have vaccines for all diseases; for example, some infectious diseases (traditional field of action of vaccines), as well as chronic and degenerative diseases, escape protection.

Prof. Mantovani gives the example of tuberculosis, which killed more people than any other disease. “A third of humanity carries the germ of tuberculosis: 10 million of these people fall ill each year, and one million die. We could achieve our goal of reducing tuberculosis mortality by 90% by 2030 only by developing an effective vaccine.

Helicobacter pylori also infects more than half of the human population, causing gastritis, peptic ulcer, gastric adenocarcinoma and mucosal lymphoma. “Today we hope that a vaccine against Helicobacter pylori will become the third anti-cancer vaccine available to us, after those against hepatitis B and human papilloma virus (HPV),” Prof. Mantovani hopes.


Combating cancer

However, it is the fight against cancer that is the new frontier of immunity and vaccines. The latest data show the possibility of making effective therapeutic vaccines, with encouraging results coming from a clinical trial of a personalized melanoma vaccine. “But this is the future. In addition to preventive vaccines, it is immunotherapy and immunological therapies that are radically changing the scenario to fight cancer. And they have carved out a growing role, alongside the more traditional surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapies. However, there is still a need for research”, said Prof. Mantovani.