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Immunotherapy Approach Tames Aggressive Cancer

Survival rates for the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) have been improved by training the immune system to attack cytomegalovirus, according to research published in Cancer Research.

Prof Rajiv Khanna of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute said that most of the study’s participants lived much longer than the 6-month prognosis normally given to a patient with recurrent GBM, and some patients showed no signs of disease progression. “Survival rates for this aggressive cancer have barely changed in decades,” he said.

GBM is the most common malignant brain cancer, and is diagnosed in about 800 Australians every year. Despite surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, less than 10% of patients survive beyond 5 years.

The study built on previous research that found that many brain tumours carry cytomegalovirus. About half of all Australians have the virus, but usually show no symptoms.

Khanna developed a technique to modify the patients’ T-cells in the laboratory, effectively “training” them to attack the virus before returning them to the patient’s body. When the killer T-cells destroyed the virus they also destroyed the cancer.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that immunotherapy – manipulating a person’s own immune system – is a rich new frontier for cancer treatment,” Khanna said.

The Phase I trials were led by Prof David Walker of Brisbane’s Wesley Hospital. The research team is now keen to begin the next phase of trials, involving patients at an earlier stage of the cancer’s development.

“These would be patients who’ve had the standard treatments on offer – surgery, then radiotherapy or chemotherapy – and haven’t had a recurrence,” Khanna said. “We hope that the treatment can be even more effective if given at an earlier stage of the disease.”