A scheme created to back exciting but ‘out there’ research which may not otherwise find funding support has brought Telethon Kids Institute researchers tantalisingly close to developing a personalised cancer vaccine.
The Institute’s BHP Blue Sky Research Grant Scheme encourages researchers to come up with curiosity-driven, exploratory and innovative research ideas that are high risk, but which if successful could represent equally high return.
The scheme, funded out of BHP’s $20 million contribution to the Institute, was created in 2014, with successful projects receiving between $30,000 to $100,000 in seed funding.
A team led by cancer researcher Dr Jason Waithman secured one of those grants, winning over the Blue Sky selection panel with their vision to create a personalised vaccine that can prompt the immune system to recognise, attack and eliminate tumours. The vaccine they envisioned could be altered to target whatever cancer mutations an individual has.
The idea builds on a shift in cancer treatment to immunotherapy – a revolutionary and rapidly evolving new approach which uses a range of agents to direct the immune system to target cancer. The team came up with a peptide-based vaccine construct designed to deliver a mutation-specific ‘payload’ which forces the immune system to generate an army of T-cells. These T-cells can then hunt down and kill off cancer cells. Dr Waithman said immunotherapies currently being used successfully on cancer patients act to release the brakes on the immune response – however, this depends on there being an existing immune response.
“Twenty per cent of people are being cured with these new drugs but the drugs only work when an existing immune response is present, and for up to 80 per cent of patients that’s not there,” he said.
“What we aim to do with this vaccine is force the immune response to be there for those people. Then we can take the brakes off the immune system, unleashing fury on the cancer. The great news is that after an initial failure, which led us to re-design part of the vaccine construct, we’ve been able to show our approach works incredibly well.
“We now need to get it into clinical trials, and we’ve filed a provisional patent which allows us to seek support from commercial partners and get it closer to clinical use.”
Dr Waithman said his first BHP Blue Sky seed funding grant of $30,000 had allowed the team to undertake enough experiments to show proof of concept – in turn allowing them to leverage substantially more support from other sources.
“The whole thing is now starting to snowball, but without the kind of start we received from the Blue Sky program, this may never have got off the ground – it would have been deemed too risky.”
Dr Waithman has since had a second Blue Sky project funded under the scheme, aimed at understanding how the immune system puts cancers to ‘sleep’ and figuring out how to help it do this more often.