Scope 40 - Cancer treatment options: surgery, drugs, radiation... the immune system

16 October 2009, Cancer

An area of rapid growth at the Malaghan Institute is our cancer immunotherapy programme.

An early 20th century surgeon, Dr William Coley, is often credited with first recognising the potential of the immune system for treating cancer.  He showed that he could control the growth of some tumours by injecting his patients with killed bacterial infusions (called Coley's Toxins) to stimulate an immune response. Although this was a rather crude approach to cancer treatment, the basic premise of cancer immunotherapy remains the same -to stimulate the immune system to recognise and destroy cancerous cells.

The Malaghan Institute is currently testing the feasibility and safety of using cancer immunotherapy in combination with chemotherapy to treat patients with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a highly aggressive brain tumour that is ultimately fatal.  This Phase I clinical trial is being overseen by Dr Ian Hermans, in collaboration with Wellington Hospital neurosurgeon Mr Martin Hunn, and Dr David Hamilton from the Wellington Blood and Cancer Centre.  

Supporting this clinical programme is Mr Hunn's PhD research into the identification of ways of directing the immune response specifically against GBM tumour stem cells, which are resistant to current cancer treatments.  It is the tumour stem cells that give rise to the disease and are thought to be responsible for tumour regrowth and metastasis, so their elimination is essential for complete remission.