World-first cancer breakthrough by Melbourne scientists

Cancer researchers have discovered a way to kill leukaemia and lymphoma cells by stopping their protein production.

The world-first medical breakthrough, which will be tested in patients later this year, could be a new weapon in the fight against cancer.

The doctors at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute are growing human stem cells and successfully transplanting them back to patients to quickly replace bone marrow destroyed by high dose chemotherapy.

Professor Miles Prince, who helped pioneer the therapy, says it is potentially medicine’s “Holy Grail” — a cure for the many types of cancer which kill about 9000 Victorians each year. Five Victorian women suffering an aggressive form of breast cancer have been on a clinical trial of the unique treatment for the past year, with startling results.

So successful has the trial been that Professor Prince told the Sunday Herald Sun the treatment may be ready for public use within 18 months.

Stem cells are the body’s building blocks and have unlimited capacity to grow and replace all the cells within a particular tissue or organ.

News of the stem cell transplant success comes as the Federal Government announced this week that Melbourne will be home to a multi-million dollar biotechnology centre for excellence.

The Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair will be the world’s first dedicated research facility to study stem cell therapies, using both adult and embryonic stem cells.The team at the Peter MacCallum is part of the new centre.

Professor Prince is the head of haematology at the respected cancer institute, and with Dr David Haylock has devoted much of the last decade to human stem cell research.The institute has Australia’s only licensed cell therapy centre, a $2.5 million laboratory where human stem cells can be safely grown and transplanted without risk of infection.The stem cells are collected and then “sorted” through a machine a little like dialysis.Blood is taken from a patient’s arm, sifted for the stem cells and then the blood is returned through the patient’s other arm in a process that takes about three hours.The laboratory was built thanks largely to a donation by the estate of Melbourne woman Edith Margaret Collie.

The stem cell therapy developed at the Peter MacCallum can be considered as part of a future cure for many cancers because it allows bone marrow to quickly rejuvenate after patients undergo high-dose chemotherapy.

“We know chemotherapy can cure some cancers and the higher the dose, the better the result,” Professor Prince said.

“But in high doses, chemotherapy can also destroy bone marrow. If we can make that procedure safer, we can cure more patients.”

When bone marrow is destroyed, patients are at risk from infection and organ failure, especially of the lungs, kidneys, liver and heart.

Professor Prince said early results of the radical stem cell therapy were exciting, and it was a world-first because the Peter MacCallum team had “got it right”.”We are able to take a patient’s stem cells out, isolate them, grow them outside the body and then move them back to the patient,” Professor Prince said. “It is the first time this has been used with success.”

All the patients who volunteered for the clinical trial have metastasic breast cancer which has not responded to treatment. This type of cancer has a poor prognosis because the tumours are always aggressive.

Professor Prince said what the team learns would be applied more broadly to treat many other forms of cancer. He said: “it could be applied to cancers like lymphoma; any cancers where we routinely use chemotherapy and try to push up the dose. I think this is very exciting,” Professor Prince said. “We should be able to give high-dose chemotherapy as an outpatient treatment because it will be safer and easier.” He said the aim now was to identify stem cells from a variety of organs so the therapy could be used.

There was already a team looking at stem cells to repair the pancreas in diabetes.

Sources and more information:

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World-first cancer breakthrough by Melbourne scientists