Putting cancer on trial

Friday 20 October 2017
Dr Aude Fahrer in the lab
Dr Aude Fahrer (Image: Sharyn Wragg)

Sometimes what we’re looking for is right in front of us all along. Dr Aude Fahrer knows this feeling. The only difference is that she has been searching for something far more important than the car keys. The researcher from the ANU Research School of Biology has been looking for a cancer cure.

The search for a cancer cure has confounded medical professionals for decades. Across the globe, scientists have experimented with increasingly complex and invasive procedures. But now, Dr Fahrer is proposing a cure that is far simpler; a cure that was right in front of her all along.

It’s long been known that the human body does know how to fight many types of cancer. That’s what the immune system is for, and in many cases, it is successful. But some cancers manage to elude the immune system and cause illness. In order to fight this cancer, the body needs to be reminded that the immune system must attack the tumour. And that’s what Dr Fahrer’s work aims to do.

Her research involves activating the immune cells responsible for attacking cancer: T cells. By default, the T cells are inactive. To turn them on, bacterial proteins are required. The proteins activate another cell type, called the dendritic cell. It’s the dendritic cell that turns on the T cell.

Dr Fahrer knew that there would be dendritic cells in cancers, but the challenge was to turn them on. She also knew that a helper is necessary to get the immune system to respond. And the best one we have is called Complete Freund's Adjuvant – a slow release mixture containing dead bacteria, invented over 70 years ago. It occurred to Dr Fahrer that injecting Complete Freund's Adjuvant into a tumour could trigger the immune system to attack the cancer.  

It was a solution that Dr Fahrer thought too obvious to work. It seemed impossible that it hadn’t been tried before.

“The basic principle of activating the immune system is not new. This approach has been used in personalised cancer treatments. In some patients, this approach has been effective. However, it is also expensive.”

Dr Fahrer’s approach of a less-personalised ‘wake-up call’ could also be effective, but with a much lower cost.

In 2016 Dr Fahrer launched the first investigator-led Phase 1 oncology trial at the Canberra Hospital. The trial is being led by two staff oncologists, Dr Desmond Yip and Dr Laeeq Malik.

Dr Fahrer is cautious in her expectations for the trial.

“Patients must have reasonable immune function in order for the treatment to be activated,” she says.  Being a phase I trial, we can only try it in patients who have exhausted all other curative options.  However, this treatment is likely to have very low side effects, and could be effective against a wide range of solid cancers.

It might not be cancer’s golden bullet, but as Dr Fahrer proudly notes, "even if only 5% of patients respond, that’s the elimination of an incredible amount of pain and suffering.”

Dr Fahrer's clinical trial at the Canberra Hospital has been made possible through donations in memory of Janice Parker and Lea Chapuis. To help fund the trial, make a donation to the Lea Chapuis Memorial Fund.

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Updated:  22 November 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB/Page Contact:  Webmaster RSB