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Cancer immunotherapy named Science's 'Breakthrough of the Year'

8 January 2014

A new form of cancer treatment that directs the body’s own immune system to fight tumours has been named ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ by one of the world’s leading scientific journals.

The editors of Science identified research into cancer immunotherapy as 2013’s most groundbreaking scientific achievement, with recent clinical trials hinting at its enormous potential for helping patients with cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy is causing a “paradigm shift” in the way researchers and clinicians think about treating people with cancer, the journal editors say.  The treatment targets the immune system, not the tumour itself.  It is the body’s own immune defences – antibodies and T-cells – that are directed by the treatment to seek out and destroy tumour cells wherever they appear.

The Malaghan Institute, New Zealand’s leading independent medical research institute, is a pioneer in harnessing the immune system to treat disease. Professor Graham Le Gros, Director, says “this global recognition of the wave of positive results emerging from cancer immunotherapies around the world is great news for our researchers, and more importantly, for all New Zealanders.”

“At the Malaghan Institute, we are currently in the early stages of a Phase 1 clinical trial of a therapeutic vaccine for melanoma. This cancer immunotherapy treatment is part of the worldwide movement to harness our own immune system to fight cancer more effectively,” he says.

“Finding something new, and looking at cancer in a new way, is hard - but we are doing it. The Malaghan Institute specialises in immunology. As an independent charity, we are able to think differently, allowing our scientists to explore the potential of immunotherapy. Progress in medical research takes years, but our hard work and the support of thousands of New Zealanders is bringing a new era of cancer treatments within our reach.”

“But this great news is not about us; it's about people living with cancer and their families,” says Professor Le Gros. “We are fully committed to developing treatments that will have tangible benefits for patients – to making a difference. We want to understand cancer, not for the sake of it, but to control it. Patients need better solutions, fast. That's what we're aiming for.”

“In addition to our melanoma vaccine trial, Professor Franca Ronchese of the Malaghan Institute is spearheading a new line of research to identify when and how the development of colon cancer can be controlled by the immune system. By doing this, we may be able to make the cancer vulnerable to attack by ‘killer T cells’, even at the later stages. This is opening up a high potential line of therapy to a major health problem in New Zealand.”

Professor Le Gros says that he believes this year is going to be very important.  “Our clinical trial of our own immunotherapy approach against melanoma will test whether our vaccine has the ability to induce the most effective anti-tumour immune responses.”

“Medical research is challenging. We must accept that sometimes we will conduct research that simply 'won't come off'; but sometimes it will. And when it does, we can really beat this disease. Seeing cancer immunotherapy being selected as the most significant global breakthrough in 2013 gives us confidence that we are on the right track.”

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