Antibody development for cancer research

Tuesday, 14 January 2020 - 5:00pm

For more than half a century the three pillars of cancer treatment have been surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The past decade has seen a revolution in cancer treatment focused on stimulating the patient’s immune system to kill cancer cells.  This approach, called immunotherapy, has quickly become a new pillar of cancer therapy.  This ground-breaking treatment works by targeting specific proteins used by cancer cells to shut off the immune system.

The key to stimulating the immune system to kill cancer cells is in neutralising those proteins that the cancer cells use in order to suppress anti-cancer immunity. The immunotherapy comes in the form of antibodies that stick to these proteins that act as ‘off switches’, blocking their ability to communicate with the immune system.

This new approach is now in use for around 20 types of cancer and further work is being trialled in Tasmania through a research grant awarded to Dr Andy Flies and his team, with hundreds more clinical trials underway globally. But despite this great progress, the work is far from over. One of the keys to improving patient outcomes is to precisely document what the tumourcells and immune cells look like before choosing a treatment.

Adding to the challenge, it’s known that the proteins targeted by immunotherapy can come in many forms - and not all proteins are created equal!

Dr Flies’ team at the UTAS College of Health and Medicine, is working with the Royal Hobart Hospital to develop new mini antibodies (also known as nanobodies) that can be made faster than traditional antibodies, ultimately aiming to tell the difference between proteins that look broadly similar. These nanobodies, which are good at getting into tight crevices that larger antibodies cannot access, also allow the team to gain a more precise understanding of cancer cells and immune cells.

The Foundation’s 2019 Incubator Grant has provided valuable start-up funding to Dr Flies’ team to launch development of this important nanobody system, which offers a flow-on advantage of rapidly producing mini-antibodies that will be useful to other research teams throughout Tasmania and abroad in many years to come.

Interestingly, the team came together from discussions about how best to fight the Tasmanian Devil facial tumour disease. Dr Flies started his Tassie Devil research by making “devil versions” of the human immunotherapy treatments and Dr Louise Nott at the RHH has provided guidance about how these treatments might work.

Prof Alex Hewitt is the innovative clinician and researcher at the Menzies Institute who provided the stimulus to begin this project, focused on developing better diagnostic antibodies for human cancer. New PhD candidate, Alana De Luca, is leading the hands-on development of this system, with help from experienced microbiologist and protein chemist Dr Dave Gell.

Dr Flies has come full circle from researching human medicine, to Tasmanian devils, and now back to humans, highlighting the value of considering reaching across traditional research boundaries to benefit the Tasmanian community now and into the future.

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