Australian researchers close in on cure for rare form of cancer
Advertisement

Australian researchers close in on cure for rare form of cancer

Just three years ago, a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma – a rare type of blood cancer – was essentially a death sentence.

Next week, Melbourne scientists will announce they believe they have taken a major step towards an effective treatment for nearly 100 per cent of patients, one that could be used almost right away.

“This has progressed really quickly,” said Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson, a researcher at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Hamish Petrie is a survivor of a rare type of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma.

Hamish Petrie is a survivor of a rare type of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Dozens of patients with mantle cell lymphoma have been given a new combination-drug treatment developed by the centre. It has been shown to put their cancer in complete remission – where it is no longer detectable – in about 70 per cent of cases.

Advertisement

“This combo therapy has completely changed the treatment landscape for this disease,” Professor Dawson said.

Early next month, at a meeting of the American Society of Haematology in San Diego, Professor Dawson and her colleagues will announce the success of a trial on cancer cells in the lab that suggests adding an extra drug to the combination might raise that success rate to close to 100 per cent.

About 300 cases of mantle cell lymphoma are diagnosed in Australia each year. A genetic mutation leads to the body producing cancerous white blood cells – the cells that normally fight infection.

Because of the cancer, the cells are no longer able to defend the body. It kills most people diagnosed with it within four years; chemotherapy is often prescribed, but almost never works.

In April, after 30 years of research, Peter MacCallum and Royal Melbourne Hospital researchers announced a new combination-drug therapy had put the cancer in about 70 per cent of patients into complete remission in two major clinical trials.

“That was unprecedented, that level of success had never been seen for this cancer,” Professor Dawson said.

“But it still left us wondering – what about those 30 per cent of patients that did not get a good response, or responded for a short time and then relapsed? Could we find out why they weren’t getting the same response?”

Hamish Petrie is among that 30 per cent. He had the combination therapy – which is not government subsidised and costs about $20,000 a month outside a clinical trial, he said – which almost completely eliminated his cancer.

But, as he was celebrating that success, he received a phone call. His cancer had DNA markers linked to resistance. It was just a matter of time before it came back.

Mr Petrie was among the 30 per cent of sufferers whose cancer did not respond to the first form of combination-drug therapy.

Mr Petrie was among the 30 per cent of sufferers whose cancer did not respond to the first form of combination-drug therapy.Credit:Chris Hopkins

At Peter MacCallum, Professor Dawson ran the DNA profiles of the patients involved in the one of the successful clinical trials.

Everyone who did not respond to the treatment appeared to share the same DNA mutation, she noticed, one that allowed the cancer to produce a protein that gave it resistance to the drugs.

She discovered that adding another drug that suppressed the protein to the combination therapy meant the resistant cancer cells were eliminated.

If the method works in humans – clinical trials begin next year – mantle cell lymphoma may be a significant step closer to being cured.

That trial is great news, because it means people may not have to suffer what he went through, says Mr Petrie.

He received a bone marrow transplant, an intensive last-ditch treatment option – but remarkably it appears to have cured him.

If he hadn't had the transplant, "by about now I'd be relapsing," he said.

“This new therapy is extremely important. This disease is one that keeps coming back to you. I believe this ...  discovery will end up seeing the end of chemo as a default treatment for this condition – this new therapy will become the norm.

"I’m extremely optimistic about the future for this one.”

Liam is Fairfax Media's science reporter

Most Viewed in National

Loading
Advertisement