Immunotherapy is fundamentally changing cancer treatment. By harnessing the power of the immune system, we’re finding new ways to assist or train the immune system to better recognise and fight different forms of cancer to create gentler, more effective treatments.

Our research focuses on developing therapies that stimulate the immune system’s cancer-killing properties.

Cancer is a disease caused when cells divide uncontrollably and spread into surrounding tissues. Cells can become cancerous for a number of reasons, whether through a mutation or by damage to a cell’s DNA from an outside source such as radiation. A large part of the immune system is dedicated to finding and removing these cells before they spread. A cancerous cell might look different to a healthy cell, or produce abnormal signals that alert patrolling immune cells to its presence.

However, sometimes the immune system fails to properly recognise, or completely remove all the cancerous cells. Many cancers develop ways to avoid detection by the immune system, hiding ‘in plain sight’ to appear as a normal, healthy cell. Some tumours can even produce immune-inhibiting molecules, preventing immune cells from reaching the cancer.

While these challenges make treating cancer difficult, they provide opportunities for developing immunotherapies to help the immune system better recognise and fight many different forms of cancer.

Our research also focuses on the underlying biology of cancer cells and the immune cells responsible for detecting and removing them. Through better understanding of cancer, tumours and the immune system, we can identify new opportunities to target cancer and improve cancer immunotherapies.

CAR T-cell therapy

We're running New Zealand's first CAR T-cell clinical trial, a revolutionary new approach to fighting cancer that has the potential to transform cancer treatment.

CAR T-cell therapy stands for Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy. A one-off treatment, it works by redirecting a patient’s own immune cells (T-cells) in the laboratory, to directly identify and attack cancer cells. These modified T-cells are then returned to the patient where they can attack and destroy cancer cells. CAR T-cells have the potential to act as ‘living drugs’, providing long-term protection against relapse. 

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