Highlights //

MWC leads cancer immune therapy conversation

The Maurice Wilkins Centre continues to be part of an international drive to develop and improve immune therapy for cancer. In 2015 the Centre organised a symposium that brought together over 160 New Zealand scientists, clinicians, and medical and allied health professionals to discuss the latest research.

“Immune therapy for cancer represents a paradigm shift in cancer care,” says Professor Rod Dunbar, Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre.

Unlike traditional cancer treatment approaches that target cancer cells, immune therapy seeks to boost the body’s natural defences by helping immune cells attack cancer cells. MWC investigators are part of the global immune therapy research effort, and are currently developing new vaccines to stimulate immune attack on tumours as well as drugs to stop tumours from blocking that attack. MWC investigators also anticipate immune therapy will eventually be tailored to each individual, and are working on diagnostic techniques to determine which therapy is most appropriate for each patient. 

Immune Therapy Symposium Web

For Rod and the MWC team, the enormous potential of immune therapy to improve cancer care makes it all the more important to discuss the science behind it with a wide audience. In November 2015, MWC organised a full-day symposium on immune therapy for cancer that drew together people from varying backgrounds. “It was wonderful to see such a wide constituency represented, from hospital staff and cancer care co-ordinators to patient support groups, underscoring the strong interest in this area for everyone concerned with cancer,” says Rod.

Symposium guest speakers included Dr Rosalie Fisher, an oncologist from Auckland, who spoke of the dramatic impact immune therapy can have on patients’ lives. Other speakers covered the scientific background to the changes in medical practice that immune therapy entails.

“This knowledge was simply not available when many of our current health professionals were training,” says Rod, “so it’s crucial to promote understanding of what is effectively a new and rapidly evolving discipline in medicine.” Feedback from the symposium supported this view, with many health professionals expressing their appreciation for the opportunity to further their awareness of the field, including the immune therapy research underway in the Maurice Wilkins Centre. Many of the symposium participants were also involved in public media commentary over the ensuing weeks.

“We are witnessing the start of a revolution in cancer treatment,” says Rod, “and we need to maintain a national conversation about how to ensure New Zealanders benefit.”

Image: Staining of a human melanoma metastasis below the skin. The image shows immune cells such as T cells (stained yellow) and wound-healing macrophages (stained red) infiltrating a field of melanoma cells (cyan). By better understanding how T cell-macrophage interactions influence the ability of T cells to identify and kill melanoma cells, researchers can improve current melanoma therapies and identify novel targets for development of new therapies. Image courtesy Joanna Mathy.