Developing anti-leukaemic technology

Dr Mark Cobbold

It is now known that a major function of our immune system, in addition to fighting off infections, is to control cancer.  In patients with cancer, the anti-cancer immunity fails but they typically have intact and robust immunity against viruses. 

In stem cell (bone marrow) transplantation, the transfer of another person’s immunity leads to the destruction of leukaemia cells within the patient and eventual cure.  However, the healthy donor’s immunity can also attack the patient – making it essential to have a good donor match but also limiting the numbers of immune cells that can be given and requiring immune-suppressing drugs after the transplant to prevent disease.  Another limitation of this approach is that it only works for certain types of blood cancer and the majority of cancers are not amenable to this treatment.

We have discovered a new technology termed “redirected viral immunotherapy” which allows a person’s own strong anti-viral immunity to instead attack cancerous cells.  This approach harnesses the strongest arm of the immune response to selectively target cancer cells.  We have shown that this technique is effective in the lab for many types of cancer and is particularly effective at targeting blood cancers such as leukaemia.  Cure Leukaemia have played a pivotal role in supporting this work in an early stage and we now have additional funding from CR-UK and LLR to develop the work to a stage where clinical trials can commence. 

By Dr Mark Cobbold, School of Immunity and infection