Researchers at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, The University of Melbourne and Monash University have been awarded a prestigious $13.2m National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Program Grant to continue ground-breaking research in cancer immunology – which is fast becoming the “fourth pillar” in cancer treatment.

The 70-strong Cancer Immunology team, led by Executive Director of Cancer Research Professor Joe Trapani is now witnessing the human impact of a 20-year mission to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Already successful immune-based therapies for blood cancer will shortly be trialled in solid tumours.

Commenting on the grant on World Cancer Day, Professor Trapani said that painstaking research with local and global collaborators, coupled with technological advances over the past two decades, are turning into reality the theory that the immune system can be harnessed to fight cancer.

“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.

“Our community is now familiar with immunotherapy in the form of antibodies used to treat patients like Jarryd Roughead and Ron Walker – but even these approaches do not work for all patients.

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

The Peter Mac team has led long-term efforts to develop this new adoptive immunotherapy treatment, where cancer-killing cells in a patient’s own blood are harvested and super-charged in a high-tech lab at Peter Mac’s home in the new VCCC building. 

Once transfused back into the patient, the engineered cells, called ‘CAR T cells’ zero in on the cancer cells. They kill them directly; divide and make more killer cells at the site of the cancer; and inflame the tumour so the immune response spreads.

The approach is expected to soon be approved as a standard treatment for a blood cancer common in children - acute lymphocytic leukemia - when all other cancer treatment options are exhausted.

With further funding from NHMRC, the team is also working to adapt the treatment for far more common cancers, such as lung and breast cancer, and further clinical trials are imminent.

More than 140 patients are currently involved in 45 immunotherapy clinical trials at VCCC hospitals, with 170 Victorian patients in the last quarter alone accessing immunotherapy as part of their treatment at Peter Mac.

Other immunotherapy research underway at Peter Mac includes a focus on molecularly targeted therapies that can strengthen the immune system to ward off disease, or to inhibit its function in cases such as transplants, when accepting foreign tissue (such as bone marrow stem cells) can be life-saving.

“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.”

Commenting on the grant, the Federal Minister for Health, The Hon. Greg Hunt MP said:

“Researchers at Peter Mac are looking at ways to boost the human body’s own ability to destroy cancer cells. 

“The work they do is truly incredible, so it’s great that Peter Mac is sharing in almost $46 million of grants for Victoria,” according to Federal Minister for Health, The Hon. Greg Hunt MP.

Peter Mac’s Cancer Immunology Program was established in 1991 at the Austin Hospital and moved to Peter Mac with 25 staff members in 2000. Its outcomes have benefited from the support of continuous National Health and Medical Research Council Program Grant funding since 2003, international grants from US Department of Defence, US Komen Foundation, Wellcome Trust UK, multiple international industry sources and multiple grants and fellowships from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria and the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Key Australian research partners include The University of Melbourne, Monash University, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Kerry Duncan's story.

Media Release.