Scientists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research have made a breakthrough in the treatment of throat cancer. The researchers have developed a therapy that uses a patient's blood to grow special white blood cells that recognize and fight infected cancer cells. The results of this study have been published in the journal Cancer Research.
The team of scientists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine studied the effects of blood cell therapy on patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a type of throat cancer. Professor Rajiv Khanna who heads the Australian Centre for Vaccine Development at QIMR, says they have had promising results. He said, “We've actually been able to double the survival of the patients in this study… Generally these patients would be dying within six months or something like 200 days, but we have been able to extend that up to 520 days, which in itself is quite impressive and remarkable.”
Twenty four NPC patients were recruited at the Queen Mary Hospital, the teaching hospital of HKU in Hong Kong and the trial has recently been expanded to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
Blood was taken from patients then transported to QIMR where the white blood cells (lymphocytes) were grown and trained to specifically recognize EBV infected cancer cells. These trained immune cells (also referred to as immunotherapy) were then returned back to Hong Kong and infused into the patients where they would selectively kill EBV infected cancer cells. The patients were then closely monitored and followed up for side effects by the oncologists at the Queen Mary Hospital.
“The majority of our study participants are located in Hong Kong, but this novel immunotherapy was prepared at QIMR in Brisbane using our highly specialized manufacturing facility, Q-Gen,” Professor Khanna said.
In addition he said patients did not develop any side effects. He said, “None of the patients had any bad effects at all…So that is the impressive part, using your own immune system to treat this cancer - you can't get anything wrong with that.”
Nasopharyngeal cancer is associated with Epstein-Barr virus infection in a manner similar to the association of hepatitis B virus and liver cancer. It is common in south Asia. Professor Khanna said, “While there is not a high incidence of NPC in Australia, it is common amongst our population from South-East Asian background and our neighbors in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and many other countries in the South-East Asian region and our work may hold the key to treating other cancers with a link to a specific virus such as glioblastoma and EBV associated lymphomas.”
“The presence of EBV in the cancer cells gives the body’s immune system a definite target to help battle the NPC, resulting in few side-effects,” Professor Khanna said. “Patients who participated in the trial were in the late stages of the cancer and quite unwell, so it was important to ensure the treatment was non-invasive, non toxic and did not damage healthy cells. By offering such targeted treatment, we were able to increase the expected time of patient survival from 200 to over 500 days, which is an extremely positive result. We believe that if we offer this treatment in the earlier stages of NPC, accompanied with chemotherapy and radiation, we can further enhance survival rates.”
Professor Khanna and his research team will be continuing their investigation of immunotherapy for the treatment of NPC at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and need NPC patients to help with their work.