Towards safe and effective immunotherapy for soft tissue sarcomas

Dr Ben Wylie from Telethon Kid's Institute is researching a new immunotherapy treatment for young sarcoma patients.
Dr Ben Wylie from Telethon Kid's Institute is researching a new immunotherapy treatment for young sarcoma patients.

Recipient: Dr Ben Wylie
Institute: Telethon Kids' Institute
Funding: $89,300 January 2023 to June 2024 (The Kids' Cancer Project: $39,300, Colliers Charitable Fund: $50,000)

Thanks to the help of canines Dr Ben Wylie is working to deliver a better outcome for kids with sarcoma. Soft tissue sarcomas are cancers derived from muscle, fat or connective tissues and are characterised by aggressive local growth.

Though sarcoma is rare it is the third most common cancer in Australian children and young adults with about 75 children under 15 years of age diagnosed each year. Current treatments for sarcoma can have severe side effects for young patients.

Large surgical procedures are often required in order to remove all the cancerous tissue and for sarcomas in limbs, this often means amputation. Children’s follow-up treatments are post-operative chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy meaning multiple return trips to hospital, making it especially onerous for kids living in regional and remote areas.

Even with these treatments, the cancer recurs in approximately one-third of children with high-risk soft tissue sarcoma. A better understanding of this type of sarcoma was a challenge that Dr Wylie accepted.

Working with the Sarcoma Translational Research team Dr Wylie helped develop a biodegradable gel containing immune-activating drugs that can be applied in the wound bed during surgery.

Recognising that sarcoma presents in the same way for both kids and canines, the West Australian-based researchers conducted a world-class clinical trial using the newly created gel to treat sarcoma bone tumours in dogs.

To test the efficacy of the gel, pet owners whose dogs had bone cancer volunteered their best furry friends. The team’s first two puppy patients were treated with the gel without any problems.

The team then expanded on preclinical work, identifying the catalyst of the gel; characterising its physical aspects to ensure it would work in a surgical setting and identifying a predictive biomarker, all of which are important for patenting the gel. Additionally, all of this is crucial in having a strong patent position before the researchers can use the gel treatment in first-in-human trials.

Thanks to innovative gel research, a new immunotherapy treatment for young sarcoma patients could now pave the way to a better remedy without having to revert to surgery. To date, the research team has fully achieved testing of a degradable hydrogel that can be applied in the context of incompletely resected soft tissue sarcoma.

Not only have they found the best combination of immune-activating drugs to use in the gel, but also the team has a better understanding of how these drugs act locally, to drive anti-tumour immunity.

Sarcoma is particularly under-investigated because it is a relatively rare cancer in adults and receives little interest from pharmaceutical companies. Treatments for paediatric sarcoma have not advanced much in the last 20 years and more research is urgently needed to develop safer, kinder and more effective treatments for paediatric sarcoma. This is one such treatment which will deliver better outcomes for kids and young people.