Last updated: 8.11.2019
Researchers and medical professionals are joining forces in fighting the growing cancer pandemic. Current statistics are nothing short of alarming: In the year 2012 alone, over 13 million new cases of cancer were reported worldwide. And these numbers are increasing at a fast rate.
By the year 2030, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expects up to 22.2 million new cases per year, a 75% increase from 2008.
Meanwhile, cancer - especially breast, lung and digestive tract cancers - remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide: The World Health Organisation (WHO) projects over 13 million annual deaths from cancer by the year 2030.
The battle against cancer also has politicians up in arms: In 2008, the European Union created the European partnership for Action Against Cancer. The main goal of this cooperative effort is lowering the number of new cases per year through preventive measures across EU member states by 15% (510,000 cases) by 2020.
For stronger weapons to eradicate the disease, medical professionals are increasingly resorting to the latest achievements from the field of research. A whole slew of novel therapies offer greatly improved treatment outcomes with far less severe side effects than conventional radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgical procedures.
The list of ground-breaking patented inventions against cancer also includes the following winners and finalists of the EPO's European Inventor Award:
Winner, European Inventor Award 2019 (Research)
Jérôme Galon broke new ground in cancer diagnostics by developing an in-vitro diagnostic tool that quantifies the immune response of cancer patients. Called Immunoscore, it works by analysing a small tissue sample surgically removed from the primary tumour of a patient.
A specialised scanner takes digital images of tumour samples and 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 the severity of the cancer and the risk of patients relapsing and dying during different stages of treatment.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2019 (Research)
In 1994, Matthias Mann patented a new technique to extract proteins from human cells. The technique, called nano-electrospray, vaporises proteins after their extraction before charging them electrically. Researchers can then identify the mass, and hence the identity, of each vaporised protein.
Sequencing thousands of proteins simultaneously has provided researchers with an unprecedented comprehensive view of how proteins function in cells. Analysing protein levels using Mann's techniques can reveal tell-tale signs of medical conditions, such as cancer and liver disease, even before patients fall ill.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2019 (Research)
In the patented ISET (Isolation by SizE of Tumour cells) test, a diluted blood sample is inserted into a small plastic cartridge containing a microscopic filter. Smaller blood cells pass vertically through the filter's pores leaving any larger blood cells, known as circulating tumour cells (CTCs), retained within the filter.
Patrizia Paterlini-Bréchot's test is able to detect CTCs in a blood sample long before the patient develops metastasis - the spread of cancer from the primary tumour to other organs and the reason why 90% of patients lose their fight against the disease.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2018 (Research)
Decades of research led Jacek Jemielity, Joanna Kowalska, Edward Darżynkiewicz and their team to develop more stable messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), paving the way for new therapies for cancers and inherited genetic diseases.
Their mRNA alters just one of the roughly 80 000 atoms in a typical mRNA molecule and makes it strong enough to withstand enzymes in the body that would otherwise break it down. Stable mRNA offers an improved delivery system for therapies using the body's genetic communication channels (its mRNA).
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2017 (Lifetime)
During the course of a research career spanning four decades, Axel Ullrich has been listed as the inventor on well over 100 patents worldwide and authored over 570 scientific publications. He is among the ten most-cited scientists of the past 25 years, with at least 50 000 citations.
Ullrich pioneered new classes of medical treatment - including growth-inhibiting drugs for breast, intestinal and kidney cancer. His "tumour-starving" medications work by cutting off the blood supply to cancerous tumours, thereby stopping their growth. He also developed Herceptin, an anti-breast cancer drug that targets tumours with the HER2 breast cancer gene.
Winner, European Inventor Award 2016 (Non-EPO)
Robert Langer pioneered a new approach to cancer treatment by encapsulating anti-cancer drugs within biodegradable plastics. He developed biologically tolerable polymers into building blocks that can be shaped into capsules for drug delivery and implanted directly at the site of a tumour, solving two problems.
First of all, the drugs are placed beyond the blood-brain barrier - which would otherwise block them from working - for slow and targeted release, thereby guaranteeing maximum efficacy. Secondly, powerful drugs delivered in an untargeted manner can have neurotoxic effects. However, the invention focusses the drug's effect on the site of the tumour.
Winner, European Inventor Award 2015 (SME)
Laura van 't Veer and her team invented a gene-based test that empowers women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to make informed decisions about whether or not to undergo chemotherapy after initial surgery.
The test, called MammaPrint, is conducted on tumour tissue samples using microarray chip technology. It measures the activity of 70 cancer-specific genes by checking levels of messenger RNA and determines a patient's risk of metastasis. The novel test helps identify
high-risk patients who actually require chemotherapy, and low-risk patients who can be spared the potentially damaging side-effects of chemical treatments.
Winner, European Inventor Award 2015 (Non-EPO)
Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou developed a progressive vaccine that disrupts the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.
HPV is a highly unstable virus and impossible to mass-produce in the laboratory. Therefore, a vaccine based on live viral elements is not feasible. Instead, Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou devised the formation of "virus-like particles" (VLPs) for their HPV vaccine. These "virus lookalikes" mimic the surface structure of HPV viral DNA. Once injected into the body, virus-like particles elicit the production of 30 to 80 times more antibodies than their natural counterparts.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2013 (Research)
Conventional chemotherapy overwhelms the immune system with cellular toxins, creating potentially serious side effects. Coated in "nano capsules" composed of slowly dissolving bio-polymers - 70-times smaller than red blood cells - a new generation of cancer medicine targets tumour sites directly.
This breakthrough was achieved by French researcher Patrick Couvreur at the Université Paris-Sud, whose minuscule capsules - only 10 to 1,000 nanometres in size - allow for significantly higher dosages of anti-cancer drugs. The nano capsules from Couvreur's laboratory are up to 10-times more efficient than conventional chemotherapies, all the while significantly reducing the impact on healthy cells.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2013 (Lifetime achievement)
Conventional X-ray therapy tends to wreak havoc on healthy tissue due to the imprecise scattering of radiation. Much more precise and effective radiation dosages can be administered with a novel particle accelerator for medical applications, the "cyclotron". Thanks to engineer Yves Jongen at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, therapeutic use of a smaller and more cost-efficient cyclotron has entered into clinical practice at treatment centres around the world. His patented invention lowered the cost from €100 million per device to around €24 million and has so far been used in treating over 21,000 patients.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2011 (Small and medium-sized enterprises)
Silicon was long considered toxic to the human body. But in the year 1995, British researcher Leigh Canham made a ground-breaking discovery: Administered in the shape of nano structures, silicon is not only non-toxic, but also biodegradable for breakdown inside the human body. Thanks to its "honeycomb" molecular structure, Canham's "BioSilicon" creates hollow cavities that can be injected with anti-cancer drugs. As the silicon breaks down over a prolonged period of time, the drugs are gradually released inside the body - even targeted to specific organs.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2011 (Lifetime achievement)
By combining highly effective drugs with human antibodies, Czech researcher Blanka Říhová created a new generation of innovative anti-cancer medicines. The antibodies are able to "identify" cancerous cells for targeted delivery of anti-cancer medicines. As soon as these molecular compounds enter into cancer cells, they stop DNA replication, thereby halting tumour growth in its tracks. At the same time, the antibodies "mark" the tumorous cells to trigger the body's immune response, which in turn breaks down the cancer cells completely.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2010 (Research)
Prostate cancer is currently the most prevalent type of cancer among men in Europe. Despite tremendous improvements in survival rates, treatments tend to be rather aggressive, taking a heavy toll on patients. In the year 2000, a new chapter in prostate cancer treatment began thanks to advancements by researchers at the French Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM): The patented minimally-invasive method for eradicating prostate cancer cells (HIFU-treatment) relies on highly focused ultrasound to kill cancerous cells without damaging surrounding tissue.
Finalist, European Inventor Award 2010 (Non-European countries)
Instead of poisoning cancer cells with toxic substances - as is the principle behind chemotherapies - the new medicines developed by researcher Napoleone Ferrara follow a radically different approach: The drugs manage to "cut off" the blood supply to tumour cells through the use of so-called Anti-VEGF antibodies - thereby "starving" the cancer. The breakthrough relies on Ferrara's discovery of the mechanisms used by tumorous cells to connect to the body's circulatory system. Under the name Avastin, the drugs have been marketed since 2004 while inspiring numerous follow-up studies and medicines based on the same principle.
Winner, European Inventor Award 2009 (Industry)
For decades, chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML) was considered one of the deadliest forms of cancer. This view changed radically, thanks to a new generation of medicines for treating the bone marrow disease, developed by researchers Jürg Zimmermann and Brian Druker. The basic principle: During the course of CML, the so-called Philadelphia Chromosome causes an overproduction of white blood cells. To stunt this process, Zimmermann and Druker developed a chemical "blocker." It is the main active ingredient in the drug named Glivec, which is now regarded as a "miracle cure" in the fight against CML.
Winner, European Inventor Award 2008 (Non-European countries)
Introduced in the year 2000, the Da Vinci surgical robot unlocked an unprecedented level of precision for surgical procedures. Since then, the system has become practically indispensable in the fields of cardiology, urology and gynaecology. The underlying principle was invented by biomedical engineer Philip S. Green at Stanford University. Green's teleoperator system enables surgeons to remotely control the robot's four surgical arms from a control board outside the operating room. Which means a surgeon can start operating without "scrubbing" into sterile clothing!