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Driving the next generation of cancer immunotherapy treatments in New Zealand

4 May 2017

Professor Ian Hermans, Vaccine Therapy Programme Leader, and Dr Robert Weinkove, Wade Thompson Clinical Research Fellow and Clinical Director of the Human Immunology Lab, are establishing a research group that will bring cutting-edge new cellular therapies into New Zealand. This research involves a breakthrough area of oncology called CAR-T cell immunotherapy.

In this transfusion-like therapy, some of the patient’s own immune cells, the ‘T cells’, are modified to express a specific receptor – a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) – in order to redirect them against cancer cells. “The approach works differently to vaccines, which aim to boost someone’s own immune response,” explains Dr Weinkove. “Here, we’re directly altering the immune cells themselves to target them.”

Central to the success of this new translational research is the expertise and knowledge of our team in good manufacturing practice (GMP) – international regulations for the production of medicinal products. “Our collaborators have developed an exciting pipeline of CAR-T cell therapies, our role is to make changes to the way they are manufactured and trialled, so that it fits with what’s regarded in the Western regulatory environment as ‘best practise’,” Prof Hermans explained.

For us at the Malaghan Institute, the driving motivation behind this project is the impact that it could have on the lives of New Zealanders. “For some leukaemias, more than half of people treated with CAR-T cell therapies have remained in remission for years without any other treatment,” Dr Weinkove said. “This is preliminary data, and we still have questions about the longer term effects, but as a clinician, I am extremely excited about the potential of CAR-T cell therapies.”