ARE 2009

Australian Researchers Honoured For Proving Role of Immune System in Cancer Prevention

Professors Joe Trapani and Mark Smyth, leading researchers from Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, have been presented with the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Award for Research Excellence for their breakthrough research proving the link between the immune system and cancer, potentially unlocking the door to an exciting new way to treat this often fatal disease.

“The ability of the immune system to identify and destroy tumours has been debated for many decades. For the first time our research has proven the immune system definitively plays a role in preventing the onset of cancer,” Professor Smyth said.

“We have learnt more about the importance of a toxin in the body called perforin, produced by so-called ‘killer cells’ of the immune system, and its role in triggering cancer cell death,” he said.

“This knowledge has validated the importance of perforin and now means we can explore novel ways to regulate the activity of this molecule and treat numerous diseases including cancer and auto-immune diseases such as, type one diabetes where perforin plays a role.”

Having dedicated the past 18 years to studying the interaction of the immune system with cancer, Smyth and Trapani are excited about taking this research to the next level, having modified and improved an old technology known as adoptive immunotherapy as a potential new treatment for cancer in an upcoming clinical trial at Peter Mac.

Adoptive immunotherapy is an approach that seeks to enhance the body’s natural immunity to cancer. It involves taking a cancer patient’s own white blood cells and adapting them in a laboratory so they can more easily recognise cancerous cells before they are injected back into the patient where they are used to seek out and kill the cancer cells.

“Our new knowledge of immunotherapy is allowing us to modify a patient’s own white blood cells to enhance the ability of those cells to detect and destroy cancer cells when infused back into the patient,” Professor Trapani said.

“Being able to take this research into a clinical trial setting is an exciting milestone for us after a lifetime of research. If the results are as positive as we hope, we may have found a potentially powerful new approach to support surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy in eliminating established cancer,” he said.

First presented in 1980, the GSK Award for Research Excellence is regarded as one of the most prestigious within the Australian research community. It is awarded annually to recognise Australia’s world class scientists for their outstanding research discoveries that have the potential to lead to significant benefits in human health.

“We are delighted to be honoured with this award from GlaxoSmithKline, and thank them for their commitment to sponsoring Australian research,” Professor Trapani said.

“We would also like to acknowledge the invaluable support and contributions we have received from all those colleagues who have been involved in the research throughout our 18-year partnership,” Professor Smyth added.

Professors Trapani and Smyth are experts in natural and passive immunity to cancer, having each published over 200 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals, with their research partnership spanning close to two decades. Their success in winning the award marks the 15th time it has been won by Victorians in its 29-year history.

“We are proud to acknowledge the lifetime achievements of Professors Trapani and Smyth towards improving our understanding of immunology and its potential application in treating cancer,” Deborah Waterhouse, General Manager Pharmaceuticals GSK Australia and New Zealand concluded.

Recipients of the GSK Award for Research Excellence receive an honorarium of $60,000 to further their work. A requirement of the award is that the majority of the research is undertaken in Australia.