Behind the science: Associate Professor Irina Vetter

Behind the science: Associate Professor Irina Vetter

With various types of childhood cancer therapy comes pain. Associate Professor Irina Vetter is close to taking some of that pain away.

With various types of childhood cancer therapy comes pain. Associate Professor Irina Vetter is close to taking some of that pain away.

When she was just 10 years old, Irina Vetter was given a book about the discovery of penicillin and how it benefited society. From then on, she says, she wanted to be involved in discovering new treatments.

Today, the Brisbane-based professor is leading several teams whose goals are based around the constant improvement of the lives of seriously ill people. She’s Group Leader of the Sensory Neuropharmacology Lab at UQ, Director of the IMB Centre for Pain Research, and a NHRMC Career Development Fellow.

She has also recently received funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project for an important research project that looks likely to relieve the enormous burden of pain on children receiving chemotherapy treatment for various types of cancers.

“Most people would be familiar with the terrible side-effects from chemo drugs,” Associate Professor Vetter says. “People think of nausea, vomiting and losing your hair, etc. But one of the most serious problems is chemotherapy-induced pain.”

Chemotherapy has greatly improved the survival rate for cancer patients, particularly children suffering leukaemia, so it’s understandable that the side effects are seen as a “necessary evil”, Professor Vetter says.

However, for some patients the whole-body pain lasts for several months after treatment has ended. For some it can last several years. And for others it can last a lifetime. 

Read more: Archer's story

“This can severely affect the quality of life of surviving children,” Professor Vetter says. “The drug Vincristine, which is used for treating kids with leukaemia and also various types of brain cancer, affects sensory nerves.”

“It causes numbness and tingling, pins and needles, shooting pains, sometimes extreme sensitivity to what most of us would usually consider to be pleasant temperatures. It can also cause problems with motor skills, such as walking or picking up a cup.”

Reducing the chemo dose is an obvious suggestion, but that could create unfavourable outcomes for the treatment of the cancer. So Professor Vetter and her team have instead looked for ways to prevent the side-effects altogether.

The process to stop the suffering

The research being carried out by the professor and her colleagues involves, she says, “advanced molecular tools and great science”. In collaboration with other research bodies, including the IMB Centre for Inflammation research, she has determined the type of inflammation that Vincristine causes.

Since then, the scientists have been testing particular drugs that could be used to reduce or completely prevent this inflammation. They have so far experienced very positive results, in the laboratory environment, with an existing anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

“In our pre-clinical modelling we have been able to completely prevent these Vincristine-induced effects on sensory nerves,” she says. “I don’t want to say we’ve found a cure, but it’s looking very good, so we’re excited about that."

“The Kids’ Cancer Project has funded us to do extra work to test different types of drugs that are already on the market. We’re trying to find out which one works best and how it is best administered. For example, do you administer the drug before the patient has the chemo, or during? We’re looking at whether these anti-inflammatories have any effect on the chemotherapy’s efficacy, which is obviously extremely important.”

This, too, is looking promising. While the anti-inflammatory treatment doesn’t improve the efficacy of the chemotherapy drug, it also doesn’t currently appear to reduce its effect.

The end is in sight

Professor Vetter hopes that clinical trials might begin within the next 12-24 months. As the anti-inflammatory drugs are already being used in adults and children for other purposes, the research team avoids potentially decades of further research.

“We’re hoping that after we finish this project, we have enough data and compelling evidence to take this to clinical trials,” she says. “If all goes well, we could translate it to real outcomes for kids with cancer much more quickly than if we had to develop a new drug.”

“We’ve also done a small amount of work around the effects of the anti-inflammatory around other types of chemo drugs, and the mechanism seems similar for those, as well. So this treatment may also extend to many other chemo drugs.”

There have been many moments during this research project, Professor Vetter says, when she has celebrated success. But those moments are always fleeting – “It’s a half-a-second, Eureka moment,” she smiles – before she realises how much more there is to learn.

Read more: Developing treatments for vincristine-induced neuropathy

“Those moments are really what keep you going in what is a very difficult funding environment,” she says. “Funding often feels almost impossible to come by, so when a project is funded and you have moments of success, it really does boost your spirits.”

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