Kiwi ingenuity winning cancer war

Last updated 05:00 09/01/2014
Malaghan Institute director Graham Le Gros
LEADING EDGE: Malaghan Institute director Graham Le Gros explains a new form of cancer treatment that directs the body’s own immune system to fight tumours.

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A Wellington research institute is among the world's pioneers of a treatment named the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2013.

Top medical journal Science chose cancer immunotherapy - using the body's immune system to attack cancer cells instead of targeting the tumour itself - as the biggest breakthrough of last year.

"Cancer immunotherapy passes the test. It does so because this year clinical trials have cemented its potential in patients and swayed even the sceptics," Science wrote.

"For physicians accustomed to losing every patient with advanced disease, the numbers bring a hope they couldn't have fathomed a few years ago."

Wellington's Malaghan Institute has been focusing on immunotherapy for 20 years, and director Graham Le Gros says it shows the most hope as a treatment for cancer.

Scientists had thought for decades that harnessing the "awesome power" of the immune system should be possible but it had been incredibly difficult to make it work, he said.

Immunotherapy is a completely different way of treating cancer that targets the immune system, not the tumour itself.

Two techniques had been seeing results in the past year. One involves antibodies that release a brake on T cells, giving them the power to tackle tumours.

Another involves genetically modifying a patient's T cells to make them target tumour cells.

"I think the hope is that when you combine the current therapies with immunotherapies you're going to get back to that wonderful word ‘cure'," Le Gros said.

"There's been some dramatic breakthroughs with clinical trials overseas, and we're in the same game. We've got what we think can do the same job, based on some Kiwi ingenuity."

Chemotherapy works by targeting tumours, and it might kill 99 per cent of the growth. But 1 per cent could be drug-resistant, which is why cancer can re-occur.

In contrast, Le Gros likens the immune system to the Gestapo, which sends cells around your body constantly, checking for invaders. "When you take the brakes off the immune system, you can't slow it down.

"The advantage is that it hunts down and it gets every last cell."

Scientists at the Malaghan Institute were currently conducting a $4.5 million melanoma immunotherapy trial, with the first human patients.

It involves a drug being injected into the patient to stimulate T cells to kill tumour cells. Its manufacture has been a nationwide project involving Callaghan Innovation, Cancer Trials New Zealand and the University of Auckland.

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The Malaghan Institute aimed to find a practical treatment that was cost effective and available to the population, Mr Le Gros said.

Some of the first treatments available in the United States cost $120,000 for one course of therapy.

Science said there had been enough positive results at different centres and with different tumour types to give hope for the future.

- The Dominion Post

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