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Queensland researchers make cancer treatment breakthrough

The culmination of 10 years of collaborative research between scientists from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine has led to a significant breakthrough in the treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), an aggressive throat cancer with a high prevalence in South-East Asia.

NPC is associated with Epstein-Barr virus infection in a manner similar to the association of hepatitis B virus and liver cancer.

By using immunotherapy, the human body’s own immune system was used to successfully fight the disease.

Professor Rajiv Khanna who heads the Australian Centre for Vaccine Development at QIMR said by enhancing the immune cells of NPC patients they have doubled the survival time of terminally ill patients.

“The presence of EBV in the cancer cells gives the body’s immune system a definite target to help battle the NPC, resulting 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 of NPC, 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 in Hong Kong and the trial has recently been expanded to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.

Blood was taken from patients then transported to QIMR where the white blood cells (lymphocytes) were grown and trained to specifically recognize EBV infected cancer cells. These trained immune cells (also referred to as immunotherapy) were then returned back to Hong Kong and infused into the patients where they would selectively kill EBV infected cancer cells. The patients were then closely monitored and followed up for side effects by the oncologists at the Queen Mary Hospital.

“The majority of our study participants are located in Hong Kong, but this novel immunotherapy was prepared at QIMR in Brisbane using our highly specialized manufacturing facility, Q-Gen,” Professor Khanna said.

“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, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and many other countries in the South-East Asian region and 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 and his research team will be continuing their investigation of immunotherapy for the treatment of NPC at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and need NPC patients to help with their work. For more information or to volunteer, please contact:

The results of this study have been published in Cancer Research and can be viewed at