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Promising results for combination therapy for acute leukaemia

30 April 2015

Acute leukaemias are among the most aggressive cancers – the number of leukaemia cells can double as quickly as every 24 hours. Leukaemias usually respond well to chemotherapy initially, but the risk of relapse is high.

Thanks to your support, the Malaghan Institute’s early research into a vaccine treatment for acute leukaemia is promising. PhD student John Gibbins, now based in the Netherlands, collaborated with Dr Robert Weinkove on a new approach.

Robert, who spends part of his time treating patients as a Haematologist at Wellington Hospital and part working with Professor Ian Hermans’ Vaccine Therapy Programme explains, “The problem with many cancers, including leukaemia, is that the chemotherapy doesn’t get rid of every single malignant cell. When you are in remission, even if we cannot detect any disease, there may still be a few leukaemia cells within the body that could grow again and cause the leukaemia to relapse and often it is more resistant to chemotherapy when it comes back.”

“We often try to prevent higher-risk leukaemias from recurring by doing a bone marrow transplant, but that in itself presents huge challenges; it carries very high risks of infection and other complications, and sadly is not an option for all patients because they have other illnesses, or because a suitable donor cannot be found.”

Bone marrow transplantation describes the process of taking bone marrow stem cells from a healthy donor and infusing them into a patient after chemotherapy. This way, the patient’s entire blood and immune system (including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets) is replaced with that from a healthy donor. 

Working with a model of acute leukaemia, the group found that a vaccine, made up of dead leukaemia cells treated with an immune-stimulating compound, was able to prevent relapse. The group’s research was recently published by ‘Blood’, the American Society of Hematology’s journal and the most cited peer-reviewed publication in its field. 

“It suggests that there is a window after chemotherapy when we could administer a vaccine to help the patient kill off remaining leukaemia cells.  While it’s early days, the results in our models are encouraging.”

The Vaccine Therapy Programme is now working to refine their vaccine by developing and testing synthetic versions that would be simpler to produce and deliver to patients.