What if the cure for cancer has been in our bodies all along?

Beating Blood Cancers research forum 2015

Researchers have long tried to understand how to get the immune system—the body’s natural defence mechanism—to recognise cancer cells as the enemy and destroy them.

And now we may finally be getting closer to what promises to be a new era in cancer treatment.

So-called immunotherapies are showing great potential in enabling a patient’s immune system to fight cancer like it might an infection, with longer lasting results and fewer side effects.

Many of the latest developments in cancer treatment focus on boosting the body’s natural immune system to control cancer, some of which is being funded by the Leukaemia Foundation.

So-called immunotherapy works to stimulate the body’s own immune system to destroy the cancer, delivering longer-lasting responses than conventional therapies.

The Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland Chair in Blood Cancer Research at UQ Diamantina Institute, Professor Maher Gandhi, says harnessing the patient’s own immune system is showing ‘striking activity’ for a range of blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma, with the side-effects comparing favourably to chemotherapy.

Professor Maher Gandhi Professor Maher Gandhi talks to hundreds of attendees at our Beating Blood Cancers research forum in Brisbane

The problem with cancer cells is that they can disguise themselves from immune attack and effectively ‘switch off’ the immune system.

Researchers are counteracting this by developing antibody drugs which target key switches on immune cells, and either remove the cancer’s ability to turn the immune system off or promote stronger immune responses from the body.

Using the immune system in this way can help deliver durable and potentially life-long responses to cancer. This is because the immune system:

  • Patrols the entire body and recognises cancer cells wherever they are;
  • Evolves and adapts to changes in cancer cells; and
  • Has memory. Many cancer treatments only work for as long as they are being given, however an immune response can potentially last a lifetime in the same way as a vaccination works. Essentially, the immune system can be ‘immunised’ against the cancer cells and able to detect and destroy them if they return.

“Without question they are a major step forward,” Professor Gandhi said.

“Many challenges remain as to how best to incorporate immunotherapy to treat patients. But undoubtedly immunotherapies are one of the most exciting therapeutic developments we have seen in years.”

Lymphoma treatment

A researcher in Brisbane, supported by the Leukaemia Foundation and Bridgestone Australia Ltd, is developing laboratory tests to predict whether a lymphoma patient’s immune system is capable of eradicating their tumour with standard therapy.

If not, Dr Colm Keane at UQ Diamantina Institute postulates that a new type of cancer therapy that works to boost the immune system’s anti-tumour response – called immune checkpoint therapy – can benefit patients who fail the standard treatment.

Over at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, immune–based therapies are also on the agenda for PhD student Rebecca Austin who, with funding support from the Leukaemia Foundation, is looking to identify how acute myeloid leukaemia affects the immune system in order to develop targeted immunotherapeutic treatments against this cancer.

Immune-based therapies have already been successful in improving survival for melanoma patients.

Professor Gandhi spoke about the significance of immunotherapy at our Beating Blood Cancers research forum in Brisbane on 23 July. Learn more about the research projects that are helping to beat blood cancer »

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