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Kiwi cancer immunotherapy research receives $3.6M boost

9 June 2014

Today the Health Research Council of New Zealand announced their $3.6 million investment into the Malaghan Institute’s pioneering cancer immunotherapy programme.

A form of cancer treatment that was identified as the 2013 ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ by the editors of Science, cancer immunotherapy treats cancer by targeting 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.

“Cancer is a leading cause of death in New Zealand,” says Associate Professor Ian Hermans, leader of the Malaghan Institute’s vaccine therapy programme. “Many cancers respond well to initial treatment, but relapse months or years later. Vaccinating patients against their own cancers may reduce this risk by stimulating the immune system to destroy the cancer cells that can cause relapse.”

To be effective, vaccines must contain compounds called adjuvants, which provoke strong responses by providing a general stimulus to the immune system.

“We are developing cancer vaccines with new adjuvants that activate white blood cells called innate-like T-cells,” says Associate Professor Hermans. 

“We will use our HRC funding to produce and test new vaccines comprised of adjuvants that are chemically linked to fragments of proteins displayed by tumours.

“We believe that the vaccines will be most effective against cancer when used in combination with new drugs called ‘immunomodulators’. These drugs prevent the body’s natural tendency to limit the size of immune responses, which in cancer, is not a good thing.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to identify combinations of cancer vaccines and immunomodulators that can be investigated in future clinical trials against different forms of cancer.”

Another recipient of a grant from the latest HRC funding round is Professor Franca Ronchese, who was responsible for establishing New Zealand’s first cancer immunotherapy programme at the Malaghan Institute in the early 1990s. Professor Ronchese’s research focus is on the basic biology of immune cells called dendritic cells and how they can be used to best advantage in immunotherapies for cancer and allergic disease.

“We have recently identified a class of dendritic cells that are able to delay tumour growth after local immunotherapy,” says Professor Ronchese. “The involvement of these cells in anti-tumour immune responses has not been reported before.  We will use our HRC funding to learn more about these cells. We expect that this knowledge will lead to cancer immunotherapies that are more powerful and easily translated to clinical situations.”

Malaghan Institute Director Professor Graham Le Gros acknowledges the critical impact this HRC funding will have on enabling the Malaghan Institute to reach its goal of developing more effective immune-based cancer treatments.

“I feel proud to see the Malaghan Institute’s groundbreaking efforts in cancer immunotherapy recognised by the HRC,” says Professor Le Gros.  “But this great news is not about us; it's about people living with cancer and their families. We are fully committed to developing treatments that will have tangible benefits for patients – to making a difference. Patients need better solutions, fast. That's what we're aiming for.”

For all enquiries please contact:

Associate Professor Ian Hermans on 04 499 691404 499 6914  ext 823, [email protected] or Professor Franca Ronchese on 04 499 691404 499 6914  ext 828, [email protected]


Malaghan projects supported by the 2014 funding round of the Health Research Council of New Zealand:

Associate Professor Ian Hermans,

Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

Vaccination and immunomodulation: Creating effective therapy for cancer

36 months, $1,190,900


Associate Professor Ian Hermans,

Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

Synthetic vaccines that exploit the innate immune response

36 months, $1,192,956


Professor Franca Ronchese,

Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

Monocyte-derived dendritic cells for tumour immunotherapy

36 months, $1,199,993




Image caption: Professor Graham Le Gros, Professor Franca Ronchese, Associate Professor Ian Hermans.