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Malaghan Institute welcomes cancer breakthrough


20 June 2008

Wellington’s Malaghan Institute welcomes cancer breakthrough

The Malaghan Institute in Wellington has welcomed the breakthrough treatment of a patient with advanced skin cancer, using the patient’s own immune system cells.

The medical research behind the successful treatment, carried out in Seattle, matches the work that Malaghan is doing to develop immune system-based therapies and vaccines.

Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros says the breakthrough treatment is a dramatic demonstration of the power of immune therapies.

“Our challenge now is to harness this potent effect in other patients, and against other cancers.”

In the Seattle case, a 52-year-old cancer patient has made a full recovery after being injected with billions of his own immune cells in the first case of its kind. The patient, who had not responded to other treatments including surgery and chemotherapy, was free from tumours within eight weeks of undergoing the procedure.

The Malaghan Institute, New Zealand’s leading immunology research centre, is hosted at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus. Its core work revolves around harnessing the immune system to fight illness and disease.

Clinical research fellow Dr Robert Weinkove says "What is special about this report is the dramatic nature of the response. The patient had a very advanced stage of melanoma, which is incurable using conventional methods such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The response to the immune therapy was both rapid and long lasting. The researchers were able to demonstrate that the cloned cancer-reactive cells persisted for at least three months in the patient's blood stream.

“Importantly, after the treatment, the patient also developed his own ‘natural’ immune response against the cancer, suggesting that he may now be cured.

“The cancer-reactive cells were grown in a specialised research laboratory. For this type of treatment, the cells need to be generated specifically for each patient. The methods used would be difficult to apply to large numbers of patients outside of a trial, because of the time and expense involved.

“Crucially, this study provides proof of principle that immune therapies can cure cancer, even in patients with advanced disease. The challenge is now to replicate this achievement in other patients, and to develop simpler and faster ways to achieve these results.

“At the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research we are researching and trialing immune therapies by vaccination with dendritic cells, the white blood cells which control lymphocytes. We believe that this approach will generate responses against a wide range of cancers."

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research is an independent medical research centre based in Wellington, New Zealand. Researchers at the MIMR aim to harness the immune system to treat disease. The MIMR has a dedicated cancer vaccine research laboratory with the facilities to generate personalised cancer vaccines for patients. The MIMR is currently involved in a cancer immune therapy trial for glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumour.

Dr Robert Weinkove is a Clinical Research Fellow in the Cancer Immunotherapy Research Group at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. He is also a Haematology Registrar at the Wellington Blood and Cancer Centre. He trained at the University of Cambridge and at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals in London, and is researching cancer immune therapies and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.


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