World-first cancer breakthrough has genesis in Melbourne

Professor Joseph Trapani, Executive Director of Cancer Research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (PMCC)

A new method of fighting cancer by supercharging the body’s own immune system is being developed in Melbourne, with trials on patients already well underway.

The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (PMCC), The University of Melbourne and Monash University have combined to further develop cancer immunology research and were awarded a $13.2 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Program Grant this year.

The aim is to advance immunotherapy to the point where it can be the ‘fourth pillar’—alongside chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery—in the fight against cancer, Executive Director of Cancer Research Professor Joe Trapani said.

“In addition to killing cancer cells with radiation or chemotherapy, immunotherapy is a totally new treatment that mobilises a person’s own immune system by recruiting ‘killer cells’—a type of white blood cells, or antibodies, to help destroy cancer cells,” he said.

Early example of success

Hawthorn AFL player Jarryd Roughead has been one of the higher profile cancer patients in recent years, after he was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016.

He turned to the PMCC for help in his battle against the disease, where he was treated with an immune-boosting drug that helped create cancer eating cells to fight the melanoma.

In 2017, he returned to the field as captain of Hawthorn, cancer free.

Professor Trapani said that success was just the tip of the iceberg, with new treatments being developed that could be used on wider range of patients and cancers.

“Our community is now familiar with immunotherapy in the form of antibodies used to treat patients like Jarryd Roughead … but even these approaches do not work for all patients,” he said.

“We are now seeing very exciting results from another approach called adoptive immunotherapy.”

What is adoptive immunotherapy?

Previous treatment options developed at the PMCC involved the synthesis of drugs to boost the body’s immune system. Adoptive immunotherapy involves the harvesting of the body’s killer T Cells—which lead the fight against foreign invaders like viruses.

These cells are then super-charged to make them recognise cancer cells, turning them into what has been dubbed CAR T cells and transfused back into the patient’s body.

Once inside, they target cancer cells and kill them. Better yet, these CAR T cells (Chimeric antigen receptor T Cells) multiply at the scene of the battle and generate more cancer killing cells.

“A little over 20 years ago the idea that our own immune system could be re-programmed to fight cancer was considered fanciful by most. For the first time in 50 years, immunotherapy is offering a radically new and very promising way to eradicate it,” Prof Trapani said.

Approval to use this method in the fight against children’s blood cancer acute lymphocytic leukemia is expected to come in the near future, with research on its effectiveness against other cancers well underway.

Is immunotherapy safe?

This is the challenge at the heart of the research, developing the technique to the point where the supercharged cells don’t attack healthy tissue as well.

“It’s no good being able to control a patient’s cancer but then causing life-threatening side effects too,”Prof Trapani told the Herald Sun.

“About 10 per cent of patients treated with new immune-based therapies end up activating the immune system to the point where normal tissues are also in danger.

“There is the potential to intervene in various ways, and blocking perforin—a critically important bullet fired by the immune system against target cells—would effectively be putting up a temporary shield against those bullets.”

What the future holds

The funding from NHMRC means the research teams can now expand their research to adapt the treatment for common cancers such as lung and breast cancer.

There are already more than 140 patients involved in 45 immunotherapy clinical trials in Victorian hospitals, and 170 patients treated in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt praised the researchers for their work.

“The work they do is truly incredible, so it’s great that Peter Mac is sharing in almost $46 million of grants for Victoria,” he said.