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Media Release: $4.5 million investment into development of cancer vaccine

10 June 2011

Treating cancer patients with a vaccine is one step closer to reality as a result of $4.5 million investment of Health Research Council of New Zealand funding in cancer research.

Dr Ian Hermans, who heads the HRC-funded cancer vaccine research programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, based at Victoria University of Wellington's Kelburn campus, says the funded study has developed from more than a decade's worth of research into developing techniques that train a patient's immune system to fight their cancer.

While the research will focus specifically on targeting melanoma, it is anticipated that the methodology being developed could be applied to other cancers in the future.

The therapeutic vaccine approach differs from the preventative vaccines used to protect against diseases such as measles or the flu because the cancer vaccine is designed to be given to an individual after they have already shown signs of disease.

"It is known that white blood cells called T cells can kill tumour cells," says Dr Hermans. "The cancer vaccines, which are custom-made for each cancer patient, are designed to stimulate the activity of these cancer-fighting immune cells."

Developing the vaccine is a team effort involving key researchers from the Malaghan Institute, The University of Auckland's School of Biological Sciences and Department of Chemistry, Cancer Trials NZ, Industrial Research Ltd in Lower Hutt, and Wellington Hospital's Blood and Cancer Centre.

"Our vision is to bring together the best expertise in New Zealand to deliver more effective cancer vaccines," says Dr Hermans. "New Zealand's leading immunologists and chemists will design and manufacture the vaccines, and the country's leading clinical researchers will test them in patients."

Dr Hermans believes that immunotherapy is one of the most promising new approaches for treating cancer.

"Currently, cancer patients moving into late stage malignancy are offered therapies such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy," says Dr Hermans.

"While effective to some degree, these treatments are often not durable, and can be accompanied by unacceptable toxicity. As many cancers can potentially respond to immune activation, an effective vaccine-based strategy with a good safety profile could alleviate suffering on a large scale."

Dr Hermans says that before this can happen, more research is needed to improve the effectiveness of the cancer vaccine.

"The vaccination technology so far tested in cancer patients is far from optimal, especially when compared to immune responses induced naturally to infection. Practical new vaccine formulations are therefore required to elicit the full potential of the immune system to eliminate tumour tissue."

The vaccines will be prepared in a state-of-the-art facility opened last month at the Malaghan Institute, which has been designed specifically to facilitate the preparation, processing and culture of human tissues for vaccine production under the exacting standards required for Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).

The building of these laboratories was a joint initiative with Victoria University and the K.I.A. Taylor Charitable Trust and represents a unique long term commitment by these parties to ensure New Zealand has the necessary infrastructure for the development of human vaccines against cancer.

The programme also benefits from novel manufacturing techniques developed at The University of Auckland and Industrial Research Ltd to provide synthetic components of the vaccine that help ‘target' the immune response to cancer cells.

"It's all about knowing what structures to target in the cancer cells, and then maximising the immune response to those targets," says Dr Hermans.

"Over the years we have developed some new ideas about achieving strong immune responses and we are particularly fortunate in New Zealand that we have developed the appropriate expertise and infrastructure to actually try them out in cancer patients. It will take five years to determine if our strategy works.  Regardless of the outcome, we will generate new information to move forward - we are in this for the long-haul."

$1.2 million HRC project grants were also each awarded to Malaghan Institute researchers Prof Graham Le Gros and Prof Franca Ronchese.  Prof Le Gros, Director of the Malaghan Institute, will use his funding to develop novel vaccine approaches for protecting against helminth parasites, while Prof Ronchese's project grant will be used to investigate the cytotoxic T lymphocyte-mediated immunotherapy of allergic airway inflammation.

"Translating quality basic research into novel clinical therapies for treating disease is no easy undertaking," says Prof Le Gros.  "It takes time, patience, and an extensive network of clinical and research partners. The HRC funding is a fantastic endorsement of the research skills of the scientists and clinicians involved."

All media enquiries should be directed to Dr Ian Hermans on +64 4 499 6914, or Prof Graham Le Gros on +64 4 499 6914 ext 822.

 The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research is New Zealand's premier vaccine and immunology research centre and is based at Victoria University's Kelburn campus, Wellington. The Institute operates independently and is a charitable trust.  Researchers at the Malaghan Institute are focused on developing innovative ways to harness the strength and potency of the immune system, the body's own natural defence against disease, to treat cancer, asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious disease.

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