Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. On average, 30 people a day are diagnosed with what has been called ‘Australia's national disease’ and more than 1,200 will die from it each year. But advances in the thriving field of immunotherapy – drugs that boost the body’s immunity – are helping to counter the deadly skin cancer.
Currently about 35 per cent of melanoma patients, if not ‘cured’, are long-term survivors using immunotherapies. Melanoma researcher Dr Katherine Woods is part of a research team that is determined to see that figure rise.
“My whole work is about immune cell responses to melanoma – how we can teach particular immune cells called killer T cells to recognise melanoma better, target melanoma better and kill melanoma better,” Katherine says.
“The whole aim is to improve patient outcomes in terms of survival rates and also to try and improve quality of life,” Katherine says.
Katherine was part of ground-breaking research in 2016 that found that inflammation in melanoma tumours could impact on the immune system’s anti-cancer responses.
The research, into complexes of enzymes called ‘proteasomes,’ showed that the changes brought about by inflammation caused huge changes in the way the T cells could recognise the melanoma cell and kill it.
“We were the first to show it, that there was such a large-scale change in what the T cells could recognise following inflammation,” Katherine says. “No one really looked at how different an inflammed versus an uninflammed tumour can be.”
Professor Jonathan Cebon, who heads the laboratory, was the senior researcher.
Findings may help cancer vaccine design
The knowledge that inflammation can impact on anti-cancer immune responses, and the increased understanding the research provided of why and how this happens, should contribute to the ongoing increase in the success of immunotherapy.
The findings have implications for the design of cancer vaccines and what are called adoptive T cell therapies; when T cells are collected from a patient and grown in the laboratory, increasing in number before they are given back to the patient to help the immune system fight disease.
Dr Katherine Woods is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working in the Cancer Immunobiology Laboratory.
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