Developing methods to enhance adoptive immunotherapy is one research focus of Dr. Hilary Sheppard, based in the School of Biological Sciences and the Maurice Wilkins Centre. Immunotherapy treatments are revolutionising the way we treat cancers by harnessing the body’s own immune system to kill rogue cancer cells. 'Checkpoint inhibitor' immunotherapy works by turning on cancer killing immune cells which were previously inactivated by the cancer. However this type of therapy has an Achilles heel in that it is not effective in all patients, particularly those patients that lack sufficient numbers of cancer killing cells at the time of treatment. In this case, patients can be treated with 'adoptive' immunotherapy whereby cancer killing immune cells are grown in the laboratory and infused into the patient.
Now, with the backing of a Royal Society of New Zealand Seeding Catalyst grant, Dr Sheppard and the human T cell biology team will join forces with Oxford University's Professor Tudor Fulga and his team to develop methods to generate the immune cells that can avoid inactivation by cancer cells in vivo. To achieve this they will use a unique application of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology. Says Dr Sheppard,
"We have a background of developing protocols to prepare human T cells for adoptive immunotherapy. This project will take us into a new arena allowing us to exploit genome edited cells. This is a new and exciting area in T cell research and this collaboration will give us the opportunity to be at the forefront of this emerging field.”
This new partnership will initiate an alliance between the Maurice Wilkins Centre in Auckland, New Zealand with the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine in Oxford, England, and will pave the way for future collaborative opportunities which will ultimately benefit cancer patients in New Zealand and around the world.