Immunotherapy is a new form of cancer treatment that harnesses the power of a person’s own immune system to recognise, target and eliminate cancer cells. Over the past ten years, immunotherapy has taken the research world by storm, with discoveries rapidly moving from the laboratory to research trials and, in some cases, right through to the clinic.
Cancer Council funded researchers Professor Philip Darcy and Dr Paul Beavis are at the forefront of this exciting research field. Based at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria, they are pioneering the development of new forms of immunotherapy that could potentially become a treatment option for many different kinds of cancer.
“My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and I have had many family members pass away from cancer. I am acutely aware of the context of my research.” - Professor Philip Darcy
They’re working on a ground-breaking new form of immunotherapy that uses an army of immune cells called CAR T cells. These cells are taken from a cancer patient, specially modified to make them cancer killers, then transplanted back into the patient. This technique has proven successful in certain types of blood cancer, and a world-first clinical trial undertaken at the Peter Mac demonstrated the potential of this approach in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, a condition that is both deadly and difficult to treat.
But when Professor Darcy and his team tried to expand their research into solid tumour cancers, they found that CAR T cell therapy was just not as effective. These cancers are more cunning, using a type of cellular defence shield to protect themselves from immune attack.
Professor Darcy and his team realised they had to break down this shield to let the T cell army in to do their work. So they combined the original CAR T cell therapy with a drug called anti-PD-1, known as a “checkpoint inhibitor” for its ability to prevent cancer cells from raising their defences, and tested it in the lab.
Excitingly, the results of their world-first investigations have proven overwhelmingly positive, leading to the establishment of new clinical trials in Australia and overseas. Should this new therapy prove to be both safe and effective, it offers the tantalising opportunity for long term disease control of a range of common cancers.
“My highlight has been seeing the approach trialled in patients, seeing all my years of laboratory work actually being able to help a patient has been amazing. It was a real wow moment.” - Professor Philip Darcy
He says that support from Cancer Council is what gave him the opportunity to explore new ideas and build the evidence needed to translate that idea into something meaningful for people affected by cancer.