The science behind Melbourne’s next generation cancer therapies

Victorian researchers at Melbourne’s brand new Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre are making large strides in the development of a treatment that will help prevent the recurrence of colon cancer.

The next generation of cancer therapies coming out of the ‘Peter Mac’ are a hot topic this week at the International Congress of Immunology, 21st – 26th August.

Professor Rob Ramsay is a group leader with the immunology program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. In the lead up to the Congress, he found time to discuss the new vaccine he and his team are developing to prevent recurrence of colorectal cancer, thanks to funding from the Victorian Cancer Agency.

Immunology: The fourth front

“To win any war, you need to fight battles on different fronts,” said Professor Ramsay. “Over the last five years, immunology has become the fourth front in the cancer war, and, hopefully, our new vaccine will further turn the tide.”

Preclinical testing of the vaccine achieved cure rates of up to 50 per cent, and testing on human subjects will begin in 2017.

In an earlier interview with the Herald Sun, Professor Ramsay said he hoped that the vaccine-based treatments will initiate a specific immune response, or reawaken a latent one, that will help keep more patients cancer free.

Precinct attracts investors

Progressing the vaccine to the next stage of safety trials at a facility like the Peter Mac creates new opportunities for attracting investors that may not have been as common at older facilities.

“The Peter Mac’s new centre within the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre is like a cross between a 5 star hotel and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. We’ve always had the expertise and culture, but now we have world class facilities that are enabling us to do what we do as well as any major centre in the world,” said Professor Ramsay.

“As a result, medium and large Pharma companies are coming to the precinct because they know we can do it well.”

More world-firsts

Two other powerful immunotherapy agents – perforin and CAR-T cells – are also being developed by Peter Mac researchers as next-generation cancer therapies.

Professor Joe Trapani, Executive Director of Cancer Research and head of the Cancer Immunology Program at Peter Mac, has been studying immune therapies with a focus on perforin for 30 years.

The protein plays a turn-key role for the immune system, allowing killer T cells to enter and attack cancerous, or foreign, cells.

“The name perforin comes from ‘perforate’, because it punches holes in the surface of cancer cells and allows other toxins made by the immune system to penetrate into the cells and kill them,” Professor Trapani says.

Professor Trapani and his team are also developing drugs that can be used to temporarily block perforin. Such a drug could be administered to patients undergoing a bone marrow transplant in order to stop the bone marrow stem cells from being rejected.

CAR-T (Chimeric antigen receptor T) cells are used for “adoptive immunotherapy” where the patient’s killer T cells are harvested, trained in the lab to target their cancer, and then infused back into the patient.

Clinical trials for these therapies are just a few of the ‘world-firsts’ that are being undertaken in Victoria’s backyard, and we can expect more in the future.