Mod­i­fy­ing our fight against cancer

Weekend Herald - - Sci­ence & Tech -

When peo­ple talk­ing about their ex­pe­ri­ences of cancer, they usu­ally re­fer to a surgery, chemo­ther­apy and/or ra­di­a­tion ther­apy treat­ment.

Th­ese three sta­ples have been used by doc­tors for decades to try to re­move as much of the tu­mour as pos­si­ble then kill the can­cer­ous cells with high en­ergy beams and drugs.

Chemo­ther­apy kills cells in the body that are in the process of split­ting into two new cells.

As cancer cells di­vide much more of­ten that nor­mal cells, chemo­ther­apy drugs are much more likely to kill cancer cells.

How­ever, chemo­ther­apy also kills other healthy cells go­ing through their nat­u­ral divi­sion process which causes many neg­a­tive side ef­fects.

In re­cent years there have been huge sci­en­tific ad­vances in the treat­ment of cancer in­clud­ing nanopar­ti­cle drug de­liv­ery, hor­mone ther­apy and stem cell trans­plants.

The game-changer how­ever seems to be in a field called im­munother­apy which has re­cently had some in­cred­i­ble re­sults in treat­ing blood can­cers and it’s about to start here in New Zealand.

Your im­mune sys­tem made up of a net­work of cells, tis­sues and or­gans that are de­signed to pro­tect your body against or­gan­isms and dis­ease by at­tack­ing any­thing that isn’t recog­nised.

Im­munother­a­pies adds arse­nal to the im­mune sys­tem by rewiring it in a way that it can at­tack with more strength and pre­ci­sion.

One of the most ex­cit­ing treat­ments for blood can­cers right now is known as CAR T cell ther­apy. This ther­apy ex­tracts a type of white blood cell called T-cells from the pa­tient and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fies them in a lab­o­ra­tory to ex­press a Chimeric Anti­gen Re­cep­tor (the CAR bit).

This re­cep­tor is de­signed to recog­nise the chem­i­cals re­leased from cancer cells, sim­i­lar to how a dog sniffs out a bone. The mod­i­fied T-cells are then re­in­fused back into the pa­tient and once they “sniff ” out a cancer cell in the body they im­me­di­ately bind to it and at­tack it.

Un­like chemo­ther­apy which kills all types of cells, CAR T kills only cancer cells so the side ef­fects are much more mod­er­ate in com­par­i­son.

It’s also proved very ef­fec­tive for cer­tain blood can­cers with re­mis­sion rates of up to 94 per cent in se­vere cancer types. Th­ese num­bers come from clin­i­cal tri­als, where most of the pa­tients on the trial were ac­cepted be­cause they had ex­hausted all other forms of treat­ment.

Cur­rently New Zealand has one ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied hu­man (David Downs) who has been through the CAR T process and is now hap­pily liv­ing in re­mis­sion from his lym­phoma blood cancer after be­ing given a ter­mi­nal cancer di­ag­no­sis in New Zealand.

He sur­vived by fundrais­ing and pay­ing for a CAR T clin­i­cal trial in Amer­ica. This week an­other ter­mi­nal cancer Kiwi pa­tient — Kurt Brun­ton was just ac­cepted onto the same US trial after suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing.

Spend­ing over $1 mil­lion dol­lars and fly­ing to Amer­ica to save a life is def­i­nitely life chang­ing for the in­di­vid­ual, but still in­ac­ces­si­ble to many New Zealan­ders who need it.

The great news is that re­searchers at the Malaghan In­sti­tute in Wellington are work­ing on the third gen­er­a­tion of CAR T treat­ments to help the treat­ment be­come more ef­fec­tive and eas­ier to de­liver and they plan to run their first clin­i­cal tri­als in 2019.

Like every­thing in re­search, money is al­ways an is­sue and a fundrais­ing cam­paign has just been launched to help the Malaghan In­sti­tute fund their re­search.

In the mean­time we can look for­ward to more ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied hu­mans walk­ing among us know­ing that just one CAR T treat­ment could pro­tect them from their cancer for the rest of their life while cel­e­brat­ing the Kiwi re­searchers be­hind their mirac­u­lous re­cov­ery.

Dr Michelle Dick­in­son, cre­ator of Nanogirl, is a nan­otech­nol­o­gist who is pas­sion­ate about get­ting Ki­wis hooked on sci­ence and engi­neer­ing. Tweet her your sci­ence ques­tions @medick­in­son

Photo / Sup­plied

David Downs in hospi­tal in Bos­ton, in March, re­ceiv­ing ground­break­ing CAR T im­munother­apy treat­ment for non-Hodgkin lym­phoma.

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