Home > News & resources > News > The power to control the growth and spread of cancer lies within your immune system

The power to control the growth and spread of cancer lies within your immune system

5 October 2012

Therapies that activate the immune system (immunotherapies) have the potential to eliminate cancer cells from the body.

For decades, patients have been given bone marrow transplants to drive immune responses against cancer tissue, but this can be a blunt tool that is often associated with toxicity to healthy tissues.

We now know that the immune system can be programmed to target cancer cells more precisely through the use of specific cancer vaccines.

Cells of the immune system that are triggered in this way have powerful cancer-killing capability and can move around the body to eliminate tumours that have spread to other tissues. What’s more, the immune cells retain a ‘memory’ for cancer; so can re-launch an attack should the cancer cells start to grow again.

Cancer vaccines can be created from a patient’s own tumour cells, or from synthetic components made to look like a tumour. The aim is to make the tumour appear dangerous to the body in the same way that an infectious bacterium or virus would, leading to a strong immune response.

Our research has shown that immunotherapy can be an effective therapy for cancer, with few side effects.

A good basic understanding of the immune system has meant that we can now exploit the key cellular and molecular interactions required to specifically induce cancer-killing cells.

The Malaghan Institute is at the forefront of this research with an established international track record going back more than 16 years. We are continually improving our own vaccine technology through basic research in the laboratory, and have conducted our own clinical trials of different forms of the vaccine in cancer patients – including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma and glioblastoma multiforme.

Supporting these studies are basic research projects investigating conditions under which immunotherapy can be combined with highly targeted cancer drugs to improve the outcomes of patients with melanoma or glioblastoma multiforme. Our scientists are also designing and synthesising novel glycolipid adjuvants to enhance vaccine-induced anti-tumour immune responses.

By bringing together New Zealand’s best clinical and scientific expertise, we believe this research has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of individuals and families affected by cancer.

Cancer affects one in three New Zealanders, either personally or through a family member or friend. It is the leading cause of death in this country.

Despite revolutionary advances in medicine over the past two centuries, cancer treatment has progressed slowly and many cancers still cannot be effectively treated. The toxicity of some current cancer treatments also represents a considerable part of the health burden of the disease itself. New targeted therapies with limited toxicity are needed to increase survival with a good quality of life.

Our research has shown that we can use vaccines to programme the immune system to launch an attack on growing tumours. In contrast to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, this form of cancer treatment is well tolerated with few side effects.

We have the expertise to make cancer vaccines here at the Malaghan Institute. Through our close working relationship with clinicians from Wellington Hospital and the Wellington Blood and Cancer Centre, we are able to administer the vaccines to patients enrolled in our clinical trials. Importantly, we have the supporting infrastructure and research capability required to push the field forward.

By combining the disciplines of immunology, cell biology and drug discovery in translational research programmes designed to unleash the full cancer-fighting potential of the immune system, we believe this research has the potential to launch a new era in cancer treatment.