December 9, 2018  Print

Nikola Barac suffered from a rare genetic immunodeficiency disorder, hyper IgM, which left him defenceless against life-threatening infections.

Nikola and his mother, Fiona.

When he was four years old, an ultrasound picked up the parasite cryptosporidium in his liver.

Nikola’s mother, Fiona Stamenkovic, said it was devastating.

"I knew what it meant. I thought his liver was going to fail and he would die," she said.

Nikola received two bone marrow transplants from his younger brother, Novak, to fight the infection. It worked, but another virus, cytomegalovirus, flourished in its place and threatened to destroy his lungs and liver.

In a final effort, Nikola's doctors weaponised the very thing that had failed him in the first place: his immune system.

He was given two rounds of T-cell immunotherapy, grown here at the Westmead Institute, which supercharged his immune system to attack the deadly infection.

This time he was given the all clear.

"It's incredible," Ms Stamenkovic said.

Immunotherapy is now a promising new frontier in cancer treatment, harnessing the power of the immune system to fight cancer.

The treatment involves collecting T-cells, a type of immune cell, from a simple blood draw and then engineering them in a laboratory so they are highly specialised to recognise and fight specific viruses.

These T-cells are then infused into the patient and armed with their previous training, recognise and kill cells that carry the virus on their surfaces.

Lead researcher Professor David Gottlieb said the treatment will benefit patients with otherwise incurable blood cancers and children born with defective immune systems.