November 30, 2015  Print

New technology in RNA detection is raising hopes of a breakthrough in efforts to induce the immune system to attack blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.

Leukaemia cells
Leukaemia cells

With the help of new state-of-the-art Nanostring equipment, researchers at The Westmead Institute are investigating what may potentially be a “game changer” in the treatment of these cancers.

Bone marrow transplants are a successful treatment option for patients with cancers of the blood, bone marrow or lymph nodes. However, this treatment can weaken a patient’s immune systems, meaning many still die from infection, despite being potentially cured of cancer.

To counteract this complication, patients undergo an ‘immunity transplant’ alongside the bone marrow transplant, which boosts the immune system to more effectively fight off infections. Trials at Westmead since 2003 have shown this therapy to effectively control life threatening infections.

These patients are also at a high risk of relapse, and in the instance of high risk acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), face a less than 20 per cent survival rate at two years. Tackling this morbidity rate is the driving force for Institute researcher and haematology clinician at Westmead Hospital, Dr Emily Blyth.

Dr Blyth’s previous research involved developing and refining the use of virus-specific T cells to help restore a patient’s immunity, and the creation of a T cell bank.

Now, Dr Blyth is conducting a study using the donor immune cells (T-cells) to directly target the cancer, with the assistance of the new Nanostring gene expression machine, housed in the Genomics lab at the Westmead Institute.

The study, which is currently in pre-clinical trial phase, uses the Nanostring system to analyse the stored patient T-cell samples, and can generate in just a few hours a set of data that would have previously taken months or years to produce.

“The Nanostring is able to tell us what a single tumour is expressing – we can look at a lot of different things in just one sample,” Dr Blyth said.

“This kind of technology is not only easier to use with more accuracy, it is speeding up research discoveries so that we can provide better treatments to patients faster.

“Ultimately, in this project we’re looking to develop tumour antigen therapy that would induce the immune system to attack the cancer. This is particularly important for transplant patients who experience a relapse of their cancer, and if successful it could potentially be used in the treatment of other cancers.”

According to Dr Blyth, although there have been many advances in understanding of the disease, survival remains poor for patients with AML.  The team’s work using the Nanostring machine aims to develop new therapies that may improve survival for these patients with high risk leukaemia.

“This research could be a potential game changer in the treatment of these diseases,” Dr Blyth said.