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Immunotherapy is fundamentally changing cancer treatment. Our cancer research focuses on finding ways to assist or train our immune system to better recognise and target different forms of cancer. We also research the underlying biology of cancer to find better treatment options.

Directing the immune system against cancer

Immunotherapy is fundamentally changing cancer treatment. Our cancer immunotherapy programme is developing new immunotherapies that stimulate strong, lasting and targeted immune responses against various cancer cells and tumours.

Much of the focus of our cancer immunotherapy research is on a subset of immune cells called T-cells, which are key in helping the immune system target and remove harmful substances in the body, including cancer.

By assisting T-cells to identify cancer cells, the Malaghan Institute is creating novel therapies that stimulate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer in a gentler, more effective way.

Understanding cancer cells

Cancer cells are fundamentally different from normal, healthy cells. Understanding how they function and behave in the body, and pinpointing the steps that lead to a cell becoming cancerous, is key to combatting this disease.

Despite their differences, just like normal cells, cancer cells need energy to grow and survive. Our collaborative discovery that mitochondria – cellular batteries – have the potential to transfer between two unrelated cells, opens an exciting avenue for research. We’ve demonstrated that damaged cancer cells can recruit mitochondria from their surroundings and bounce back from treatment. We’re investigating whether this mitochondrial transfer can be controlled to prevent cancer cells recovering from treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. 

Current research

 CAR T-cell therapy

The Malaghan Institute, in partnership with Wellington Zhaotai Therapies, is developing and trialling a ‘third generation’ CAR T-cell therapy in New Zealand and undertaking parallel research focusing on improving CAR T-cell therapies and extending them to other cancers.

Melanoma vaccine trial

Using a concept developed by the Malaghan Institute, and chemical expertise from the Ferrier Research Institute and Auckland University, the Cancer Immunotherapy team has been investigating the capacity of a new cell-based vaccine to stimulate T-cell responses in patients with melanoma. After finishing a phase II clinical trial, where two forms of the vaccine were compared, biostatisticians from Clinical Trials NZ have determined that measurable T-cell responses to the vaccine were seen in nearly all of the patients – a result well beyond our expectations.

Mitochondrial transfer

Having established that mitochondria can be exchanged between healthy and cancerous cells, the Cancer Cell Biology team is now investigating how and why this happens, including how to block this phenomenon to prevent tumours regaining this essential cellular component following treatment that damages mitochondrial DNA.