In 2002 Rajiv Khanna, at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, started work on the potential of a relatively common virus, Cytomegalovirus (CMV), as a target that could stimulate the immune system to attack cancers. That was a long sentence but each part of it carries with it a subtext of discovery, clarification, testing, trialling, generating materials, getting funds, applying for grants, publishing papers until eventually it came to the stage where Rajiv was aware that he had established how to use the CMV to trick the immune system to tackle some cancers. That also is a long sentence but unfortunately some cancers are a very short sentence with a very high probability of death soon after detection. Glioblastoma, the most common brain cancer, is one such example.
This was one of the targets of Rajiv’s work and he carried out his research with a very strong connection to a clinician, neurosurgeon Professor David Walker, at Newro Foundation and Wesley-St Andrew’s Research Institute. The long wait to do some initial tests had a preliminary end four years ago. Then, patients who were at the most advanced form of secondary recurrence of glioblastoma were tested with the CMV driven therapy. The effects were positive in some patients and too late in others but in all cases there were no side effects. In other words the treatment was safe. Again saying something is safe is a short sentence but it is built upon layers and layers of hard work. The process involves taking white blood cells from the patient and growing them in a laboratory under very specialised and very sterile conditions in the presence of the CMV trigger before they are reinjected into the patient. QIMR Berghofer has extensive certified cellular therapy laboratories of a quality that is rarely found elsewhere world-wide where this work can be performed.
Having carried the initial safety tests on extreme cases of glioblastoma, today was the start of a much more relevant trial. The first patient in the trial, Michael O, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma recently. He had the standard treatments of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. In parallel with that, white blood cells from a blood sample were being challenged by Rajiv’s treatment at QIMR Berghofer and grown to a stage where they could be reinjected into him. The first treatment with this new combination of therapies started today. It was a moving moment with his mother and wife present. A simple injection by Professor David Walker that carried 37 million activated white blood cells into a path through his body to seek and hopefully destroy the tumour cells that escaped chemo and radiation treatment.
Rajiv and some of his team attended this culmination of years of work. The Queensland Minister for Health Cameron Dick and the media also came to see this significant milestone, but it was not a “circus” event. Too much is at stake for Michael. Fingers are crossed in the hope that this will in fact be a significant change to the outcome in GBM. The clinician, David Walker at the Wesley Hospital, is very aware of the need for these treatments and has been a great partner in the process but the development of this new treatment also would not have been possible without significant contributions from the public and support from Queensland Health.
So here we have a great combination, a dedicated researcher (Rajiv Khanna), a successful applicant for research funding from the NHMRC and other sources, an aware clinician, David Walker, funding from the community and the State culminating in a new treatment and new hope for a patient. This is translational research in action and typifies the work that is ongoing at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.