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Taking on the challenge of cancer immunotherapy

5 March 2013

Talented young immunologist John Gibbins says it is his love of a good challenge that first drew him into science.

Currently in the final year of his PhD studies at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, John has been applying his problem solving skills to a promising new area of cancer treatment called adoptive cell therapy (ACT).

ACT targets the activation of the immune system to control the growth and spread of tumours. The process involves isolating a class of cancer-specific immune cells called CD8 T cells from a patient’s blood, activating them in the laboratory and then re-infusing the activated cells back into the patient. The end goal is to alert the patient’s immune system to the presence of their cancer, and provide it with the tools it needs to destroy it.

Adoptive cell transfer is currently limited by the ability of the activated T cells to survive in high numbers for an extended period of time. This is where John’s research has been focused.

Under the supervision of Assoc Prof Ian Hermans and Dr Troels Petersen, John has identified a specific subset of immune cells that help the CD8 T cells survive for longer and in greater numbers, in response to particular cancers of the blood. They are now investigating how best to use this new knowledge to boost the effectiveness of this form of anti-cancer treatment.

In December 2012, John presented his research findings at an international conference entitled Tumor Immunology: Multidisciplinary Science Driving Basic and Clinical Advances in Miami, Florida. John says he is very grateful to the Wellington Division of the Cancer Society, Leukemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand and the Maurice and Phyllis Paykel Trust, for helping making this trip possible, because it gave him the opportunity to speak with many of the world’s leading scientists within this field of research.

“Several of the talks at the conference were highly relevant to my own work, the highlight of which was a presentation by the world-renowned tumour immunotherapist, Dr Phillip Greenberg,” says John. “I learnt a great deal about the advances being made and problems encountered in current cancer immunotherapy.”

“Through this experience I have been able to develop networks for future research opportunities and collaborations, and came back home with lots of new ideas for my own research.”

Since his return to Wellington John has been busy in the lab putting some of these ideas into practice and has started writing up his thesis. As for the future, John says he is keen to pursue a career in adoptive cell therapy and to expand on his current knowledge of this rapidly evolving area of cancer research.