Why I do research: Filiz Özkan
Understanding the Immune System
- von Ulrike Bohnsack
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide. To improve survival of patients is the big goal of Filiz Oezkan, MD. She is an attending physician in interventional pulmonology at Ruhrlandklinik. She spent almost four years at the Ohios State University (USA) to lead comprehensive translational studies within the world’s largest neoadjuvant mono-immunotherapy trial to date under Dr. David Carbone’s leadership. In this interview she talks about her research and what drives her to continue.
What is your research about?
My major interest is to understand how immunotherapies work. They are successful treatment options for many cancers, however in lung cancer about 80 percent do not show a long-term benefit and we don’t know well enough why that is the case.
'Neoadjuvant' means, that the immunotherapy is administered before the surgery. Using blood, lymph node and tumor samples before and after immunotherapy, it is possible to understand better why these treatments work better for some patients than for others. As an interventional pulmonologist I am most interested in the lymph nodes, since this is where the immune response happens. In my clinical work, I sample tumor-draining lymph nodes of lung cancer patients every day to establish their diagnosis and staging
What drives you to continue your work?
I tell patients every day that they have lung cancer and oftentimes this is at a stage where surgery is no longer an option. Already as a resident I felt the need to do something that is „practice-changing“.
Part of this is to look at things from a different perspective. I am one of the few interventional pulmonologists that are active in translational tumor research and I had and have the great chance to learn in the USA from one of the leading cancer researchers, Dr. David Carbone.
What was your most important discovery so far?
Good research is always team-work. Our most interesting discovery so far was within that study*. Patients received two treatments with the agent atezolizumab, which is known to improve the anti-tumor immune response. However, we haven not understood the details yet. This is why we analyzed immune cells in the blood, lymph nodes and tumor tissues of patients before and after the treatment. We discovered that cells of the innate immune system play an important role in the response to this treatment. This was unknown. Treatment response had been linked to the adaptive immune response.
You are one of the few female researchers in your field …
Yes, this is unfortunately still something that seems exceptional. Why that is? Hard to tell. One thing could be that women have a tendency to be too critical about their own work. I try to encourage women both in this hospital and worldwide and medical students at the UDE to become physician-scientists.
It would be nice, if the setting could change a bit: In the US, I experienced that research is valued as 'work', here it is oftentimes still seen as a 'hobby' that could and should be done on the side or in the free-time. But there is still a lot of work to do to actually cure lung cancer.
* Neoadjuvant atezolizumab for resectable non-small cell lung cancer: an open-label, single-arm phase II trial: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-022-01962-5