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Researchers a step closer to harnessing the immune system against cancer

Wednesday 26 April, 2017


Victorian researchers investigating how to genetically engineer a patient’s immune system to target cancers have discovered a new method to enhance the potential of this therapy, with the discovery providing the potential to uncover more effective treatments for a range of cancers.

Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells is a form of cancer therapy in which a patient’s immune system is genetically engineered with an antibody like receptor that enables T cells to better recognise and target cancer cells. However, until now, researchers have had trouble trafficking sufficient numbers of these cells to the cancer site, particularly for solid cancers, or have found that cancer cells can effectively turn off these gene-modified cells. 

The recent findings from researchers funded by Cancer Council Victoria at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre show that combining CAR T cells with drugs that block an immune suppressing metabolite called adenosine can enhance their efficacy in solid tumours, such as breast cancer.

The researchers, led by Peter Mac’s A/Prof Phillip Darcy and Dr Paul Beavis, are now hoping to initiative a phase 1 trial for the treatment.

A/Prof Darcy said the possibilities are exciting, having already performed a phase 1 trial using CAR T cells for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) patients in 2013, the first of its kind in Australia. 

“We are really excited by the results and the possibilities emerging from immunotherapy. Ultimately, it’s all about finding more effective treatments to save people’s lives.”

Immunotherapy is one of the most exciting areas of new discoveries and treatments for many different kinds of cancer, resulting in a treatment that stimulate or restore the ability of the immune system to fight infection and disease. 

A/Prof Darcy said he has had several family members diagnosed with cancer, which has been a motivator in his work. 

“Having people close to me personally affected by cancer has fuelled my motivation for discovering more effective and safer therapies through my research,” A/Prof Darcy said.

“I first received funding from Cancer Council Victoria about 20 years ago. This ongoing funding has allowed me to build on my findings and ultimately this important discovery.”

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said the ongoing investment in cancer research, such as that benefiting A/Prof Darcy, has resulted in an increased five-year survival rate from 47% in 1985 to 67% in 2014 for cancer.

“Despite an increasing rate of cancer diagnoses due to an ageing and growing population in Victoria, it is buoying that more people than ever are surviving a cancer diagnosis.

“Research findings, like that of A/Prof Darcy and Dr Beavis, provide hope to cancer patients, as well providing more targeted treatment with less side effects.”