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QIMR Berghofer-HKU collaboration to help cancer patients

HONG KONG: The Governor of Queensland, His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC has attended a ceremony marking an important agreement between the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia and the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong (HKU).

The agreement will give patients access to a ground-breaking cancer treatment, and initiates a training program for scientific staff from Hong Kong for the production of clinical grade killer T-cell immunotherapies.

Scientists from the two institutions have joined forces for the next phase of a clinical trial using an immunotherapy for the management of nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), which is an aggressive upper respiratory tract cancer common among people from South East Asian countries including China, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore.

Professor Rajiv Khanna from QIMR Berghofer’s Tumour Immunology Laboratory says 30 newly diagnosed patients with metastatic NPC at the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong and others in Australia will be involved in the Phase II trial.

The presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in NPC tumour cells provides the immunotherapy target.

“The phase I trial which started in 2012 involved late-stage NPC patients, and even though the primary endpoint of this Phase I trial was safety, we found that this cell-based therapy, on average, improved their life expectancy,” Professor Khanna said.

“Overall survival rates of immunotherapy patients in the trial were 523 days, compared to only 220 days in patients who did not receive the treatment.

“In the new trial, by offering this treatment in the earlier stages of the disease, we hope to improve survival rates.”

Professor Khanna said Phase II patients will undergo the standard chemotherapy and radiation treatment regime while their own cells are being prepared to fight the cancer.

“In the Phase I trial a sample of the patient’s blood was taken before treatment started and sent to QIMR Berghofer’s Brisbane laboratories,” Professor Khanna said.

“Our scientists then extracted T-cells – a type of white blood cell –which were nourished in the lab and ‘primed’ to attack cells infected with the virus, honing in on malignant cells while leaving normal cells intact.”

Professor Khanna said when the immunotherapy collaboration with HKU began eight years ago, it was intended that the technology developed at QIMR Berghofer would be shared with Hong Kong, where there are more NPC patients.

“With a generous donation by the ZeShan Foundation in Hong Kong we are now able to begin to train scientific staff from Hong Kong in clinical grade T-cell stimulation,” Professor Khanna said.

“Instead of the blood being sent to Queensland from Hong Kong, expansion of the killer T cells can also be carried out in Hong Kong once an accredited laboratory facility is established.”

Director and CEO of QIMR Berghofer Professor Frank Gannon said the Institute’s manufacturing facility, Q-Gen, recently became the first in Australia to be granted regulatory approval to prepare clinical grade T-cell therapies.

“In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is responsible for licencing facilities according to stringent quality and hygiene standards,” Professor Gannon said.

“Manufacturing the ‘killer T-cells’ takes two weeks, and another fortnight is spent in rigorous testing before the cells are ready for injection back into the patient.

“The early clinical trial demonstrated that this treatment is safe.”

Professor John Nicholls from HKU said up to six killer T-cell infusions will be given to patients over a period of 12 weeks.

“The patients will then be monitored and given standard treatment if their disease progresses,” Professor Nicholls said.

More information about the trials can be found at: