Brisbane resident Eddie Chen is a living testament to the great work of QIMR researchers and power of the human body.
After being diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), an aggressive throat cancer, two years ago, Eddie agreed to participate in a QIMR trial using an experimental treatment where his own immune system would be bolstered in the laboratory and then used to fight his cancer.
Following the procedure, Eddie now shows no signs of cancer, is back at work, feeling healthy and enjoying time with his family.
“My health is going from strength to strength. I feel healthier now than I ever have, with a whole new outlook on life,” Mr Chen said.
This trial was the culmination of 10 years of collaborative research between scientists from QIMR and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine. It used immunotherapy, a process where the disease is successfully fought by the body’s own immune system.
QIMR’s Professor Rajiv Khanna said by enhancing the immune cells they have doubled the survival time of terminally ill NPC patients.
“NPC is associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection which makes it a bit different to other cancers, in that the presence of EBV in the cancer cells gives the body’s immune system a definite target.
“This results in few side-effects,” Professor Khanna said. “Patients who participated in the trial were in the late stages of the cancer and quite unwell, so it was important to ensure the treatment was non-invasive, non toxic and did not damage healthy cells.
“By offering such targeted treatment, we were able to increase the expected time of patient survival from 200 to over 500 days, which is an extremely positive result.
“We believe that if we offer this treatment in the earlier stages, accompanied with chemotherapy and radiation, we can further enhance survival rates.
Twenty-four NPC patients were recruited at the Queen Mary Hospital, the teaching hospital of HKU and the trial was also expanded to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
Blood was taken from patients then transported to QIMR where the white blood cells were grown and trained to specifically recognise EBV infected cancer cells. These trained immune cells were then infused into the patients where they selectively killed EBV infected cancer cells.
“While there is not a high incidence of NPC in Australia, it is common amongst our population from South-East Asian background and our neighbours in China, Indonesia, Thailand and many other countries in the South-East Asian region. Our work may hold the key to treating other cancers with a link to a specific virus such as glioblastoma and EBV associated lymphomas,” Professor Khanna said.