Cancer is a leading cause of death in New Zealand and most of us will have experienced it, either personally or through a friend or relative.

In medical terms, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in the body. There are trillions of cells in the body constantly being renewed and replaced as older cells are damaged or die. Sometimes in this process a gene change will cause cells to start dividing and growing rapidly, causing tumors and destroying healthy tissue.

What makes cancer so difficult to treat is that it is not one just one disease—in fact there are more than 200 different types of cancer, and some cancers which begin in one part of the body may spread into other organs and tissues. Identifying and targeting cancerous cells is further complicated because they are the body's own cells, and our immune systems are not always able to differentiate between normal and cancerous cells.

At Ferrier, our researchers are working to provide options for the treatment of cancer. Our current strands of research include (i), the discovery of drugs that target enzymes critical to the process of cancer cell development and or proliferation; (ii) training our own immune systems to recognise and eliminate cancer cells which is also known as cancer immunotherapy.

Finding a treatment for lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system and affects a type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes.

Lymphocytes help fight disease in the body and play an important role in the immune system. Given lymphoma is present in the bloodstream, it can quickly spread (or metastasise) to different parts of the body.

Ferrier scientists, together with our partners at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Biocryst Pharmaceuticals and Mundipharma have developed a drug, Mundesine®, which is now being used to treat patients with a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Targeting Zero deaths from breast cancer

Breast Cancer is New Zealand’s third most common cancer and accounts for more than 600 deaths every year. Breast cancer develops from breast tissue and mammograms can detect breast cancer early, possibly before it has spread.

We have a vision of a world with no deaths from breast cancer, and we’re working with the Breast Cancer Foundation of New Zealand and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research to realise this ambition.

Leveraging the immune system

Under the leadership of Professors Gavin Painter and Ian Hermans the research team are developing a synthetic cancer vaccine technology that can activate the patient’s own immune system to provide a targeted immune response to their cancer.

A complication in treating breast cancer is that it appears that in its early stages undetected tumour cells can spread to other parts of the body, and can lie dormant for many years, up to a decade or more, before causing the patient to relapse. Recent research also suggests that conventional chemotherapy treatments can increase the chance of these cells becoming malignant.

Ferrier scientists are responding to this by designing vaccines that provide long-lasting immunity, contributing to the long-term wellbeing of breast cancer patients.

This approach is showing early promise, with the synthetic vaccine causing the successful rejection of cancer in preclinical models.

Stopping the spread of cancer

Dr Olga Zubkova is leading a research project that aims to address the presence of heparanase (an enzyme) to halt the spread of cancer in the body.

Heparanase weakens the elements that hold cells together and enables cancer cells to escape by breaking down tissue barriers and spread to other tissues, such as brain and liver.

Dr Zubkova research is seeking to suppress heparanase using sugar-based compounds she has developed over the past eight years. These compounds can restrict tumour growth.

Cancer treatments frequently employ combinations of drugs with different mechanisms of action. The goal of this research is to contribute important new drugs to the mix, but ones with lower side effects.

Dr Zubkova’s research has drawn funding support from both the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund.

The project brings together a team of experts from across New Zealand, as well as Canada, Israel, Singapore and the UK.

A shot in the arm for cancer treatment

Current approaches to treating cancer rely on poisoning malignant tissue, often with unavoidable negative side effects for the patient. Cancer vaccines offer a whole new approach with fewer side effects and the potential to be more effective in the long term.

Working in partnership with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, we are designing cancer vaccines that help our own immune system reject a cancer, with two of them currently in clinical trials.

The first is a personalised vaccine which is manufactured for each patient and made up of three parts—dendritic cells derived from a patient’s own blood, a chemical adjuvant (an immune stimulant) and tumour antigens.

This technology allows the vaccine components to be selectively released inside the immune system’s antigen presenting cells.

Initial testing has shown that these synthetic vaccines can elicit a powerful immune response and produce huge numbers of cells that are highly targeted to the tumour cells. In a therapeutic model, where the cancer is established, we see tumour regression for a significant period of time.

The next step is to progress the technology to clinical trials.

The second is a melanoma vaccine which we have developed in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, the GMP Peptide Facility at the University of Auckland and GlycoSyn. This vaccine is currently being trialled in 46 subjects, with results expected mid 2019.