A clinical trial of a new immunotherapy that will deliver a “toxin bomb” to brain cancer cells was one of two research projects focused on childhood cancer to receive funding announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt at UNSW
The project to treat the lethal brain cancer glioblastoma, led by Associate Professor Kerrie McDonald
(pictured) at UNSW, will receive a grant of $1.4 million under the government’s rare diseases clinical trials program.
“We are absolutely thrilled that we are getting funding to run a cutting-edge, novel immunotherapy program,” Associate Professor McDonald said.
“Hope is a big deal for patients. Unfortunately, the diagnosis of brain cancer may be a hopeless situation for many. Glioblastoma is uniformly lethal, and these tumours now represent the most frequent cause of cancer death in children and young adults.”
She said that more than 90 per cent of brain tumours contain a common virus called cytomegalovirus, or CMV – a member of the herpes family.
“We are tapping into that. What we have developed is a peptide that goes into the brain, binds to the CMV and then drops a toxin bomb that’s going to clean up the tumour.
“We’re also boosting the immune system. We’re using a tetanus shot. One of the biggest issues for brain cancer patients is that the tumour comes back. We are confident this treatment is going to work.”
Thirty patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma will be recruited for a Phase 1 clinical trial of the UNSW therapy, which has been developed in collaboration with Duke University in the US.
Mr Hunt said glioblastomas presented one of the “most agonising” diagnoses, because average survival time is less than 15 months, but the UNSW research offered hope.
“This is about an amazing technology – the use of immunotherapies coupled with toxins to try to treat, and prevent relapse, of brain cancer.”
Continued focus on research
Another project to receive funding will be a clinical trial to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in infants (iALL). At this stage less is known about the recipient of that grant.
Last year, the federal government established a one-off grant of $13 million to its Medical Research Future Fund’s Rare Cancers, Rare Diseases and Unmet Needs Clinical Trials Program.
In a major funding boost announced at the UNSW press conference, Mr Hunt said that the quality and number of applications for this funding had been so high the government had decided to make it a permanent annual program. Another $10 million funding round for rare cancers and rare diseases with low survival rates will be held in late February.
“The initial $13 million will become a $69 million program over the course of three years and we will extend it further beyond that at budget time,” he said.
Associate Professor McDonald said, “Patients need to know that everyone is working desperately hard to find cures and find treatments.”
The Kids' Cancer Project gratefully acknowledge Deborah Smith of UNSW and photographer Quentin Jones.