Professor Robinson, from UWA’s School of Medicine and Pharmacology and director of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, said the vaccine aimed to “wake up” the body’s immune system so that it would attack and shrink a tumour.
He is confident that human trials could be rolled out within a year or so – and the National Health and Medical Research Council is so impressed with the potential of the immunotherapy strategy and other research being pursued by the team that it has given a $2.5 million Centres of Research Excellence grant to advance them.
“It’s a very exciting time, and the culmination of a lot of very dedicated research,” Professor Robinson said.
“Two of the most exciting recent advances in cancer research are immunotherapy – which the Science journal hailed as ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ in 2013 – and the DNA sequencing of tumour mutations.
“For so long we’ve wondered why the body’s immune system sees cancer mutations yet doesn’t attack them as they would, say, attack a virus. We now understand that cancers are able to fool the immune system into thinking they are friend rather than foe, so the body’s anti-cancer killer cells fail to attack the tumour cells, and they grow, multiply and spread unhindered.
“Our aim is to discover these mutations using modern DNA sequencing methods then to introduce vaccines containing the cancer mutations into another part of the body to force the immune system to ‘wake up’ and go on the attack, and to shrink a tumour.”
Professor Robinson said that while a handful of international researchers were working in this area of frontier medical science, none had yet succeeded in producing and administering a vaccine that induced tumour shrinkage in patients.
And while international groups are working mainly in the area of melanoma, the UWA researchers are mostly focusing on the asbestos cancer mesothelioma and lung cancers.
“Our researchers have already proved that we can identify these mutations and detect killer cell responses,” Professor Robinson said.
“We are administering such vaccines to animals and this grant will allow us to progress the research and work out the best methods of vaccine design and delivery as a basis for human trials. And the big plus is that this is a local discovery that could be immediately translated for the benefit of patients here in Australia because it would not be limited by a pharmaceutical patent.”
(Source: The University of Western Australia)