Promising new drug to tackle treatment resistance

Professor Maher Gandhi

We were excited to read about a new drug being tested overseas that may overcome resistance to blood cancer drugs faced by some patients. Research using a different approach to the same problem is being done right here in Queensland.

We asked our chair in blood cancer research at The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Brisbane, Professor Maher Gandhi, for his thoughts.

“Rituximab has revolutionised the way we treat lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) as well as non-Hodgkin lymphomas,” Professor Gandhi said. “It works by allowing the body’s own immune cells (called Natural Killer cells) to recognise the cancer cells. However some patients remain resistant or relapse.

“The team at the University of Southampton in the UK show that this is because cancer cells ‘swallow up’ rituximab before it has a chance to be recognised by the Natural Killer cells. The cancer cells do this by a protein called FcγRIIB.

“Crucially, the team then went one step further, and developed an antibody to block FcγRIIB.”

Professor Gandhi said the antibody not only enhances the effect of rituximab, but itself can kill the leukaemia and lymphoma cells.

“This work was all done in the laboratory, so I look forward to the results from the next step which is to treat patients in carefully conducted clinical trials.”

Clinical trials are expected to start overseas later in the year to test the safety and effectiveness of the new drug for leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients.

“The preliminary findings certainly appear promising and may lead to more effective drug combinations that benefit patients who have previously not had success with current treatments or who have relapsed,” Professor Gandhi added.

The UK findings were published recently in the journal Cancer Cell.

A different approach

Professor Gandhi said a research group led by Dr Fiona Simpson, also from the Diamantina Institute in Brisbane, has developed a different approach to address the same problem. Her work has concentrated on increasing the ability of the immune cell to recognise cancer cells.

The group are about to commence an early phase clinical trial at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.

The group is testing a combination therapy where monoclonal antibodies are used with clinical compounds which have been used for treatments other than cancers. This combination will hopefully increase the recruitment of immune cells to kill the tumour as well as reverse resistance in patients.

“Although our focus hasn’t been on blood cancers there’s no reason why our strategy couldn’t be adapted to leukaemia and lymphoma,” Dr Simpson said.

Help beat blood cancers

It is only with the community’s support that we can continue to fund important research projects and positions like Professor Gandhi’s in his role as Chair in Blood Cancer Research.  Give today and help take us closer to a future free from blood cancers.

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