Melbourne scientist Misty Jenkins has had a long-time interest in immunology.
But it was a neuroscientist friend of hers who urged her to focus her skills on seeking a cure for brain cancer.
“I’m sick of telling my patients they are going to die,” her friend told her. “Someone needs to do something about it.”
“Brain cancer is rare, but for people who do get it the prognosis is not good,” Assistant Professor Jenkins tells The Australian.
Brain stem tumours in children are 100 per cent fatal.
“Brain cancer kills more children than any other disease,” she says.
“If a child is diagnosed with brain cancer, the parents are basically told to take them home and ‘make memories’.”
Adults may have more time – as much as 18 months – but few make it through to the five-year cancer-free stage.
Seven years ago, with financial support from several philanthropists, Jenkins founded a laboratory at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne to focus specifically on finding a cure for brain cancer.
Thanks to grants of $600,000 over two years that her colleague Professor Matt Call received from the annual Sohn Hearts and Minds conference, her laboratory has been able to develop its research into ways to combat brain cancer to the stage where they are ready for clinical trials in humans.
Jenkins, an associate professor at the Institute, will be a speaker at this year’s Sohn conference in Sydney, outlining the unique approach to combating brain cancer she and her team are working on.
The annual conference, where people pay to hear the stock tips of local and global fund managers, has raised $60m for medical research since it began in Australia in 2016.
The research at the Institute is aimed at using the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer in the brain. It uses chimeric antigen receptor T (CAR T) cells to identify and attack brain tumours.
The focus is on designing receptors to be expressed by immune cells which can recognise and kill the cancer.
But it is a fine line to make sure that the immune system doesn’t damage the brain in doing so.
“We want the receptors to bind with the tumour and have the immune cells, or T cells, kill the tumour cells, but not be so activated that they cause inflammation in a really delicate location like the brain,” she says.
“It’s a bit like using volume control to tune the receptors to make them safer.”
Jenkins says the process has been shown to cure brain cancer in mice and is now ready for clinical trials on humans if they can get enough funding.
Jenkins did her PhD in immunology at the University of Melbourne with Peter Doherty, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on T cells. She went on to do postdoctoral work at Oxford and Cambridge universities – the first Indigenous Australian to attend the universities as a postdoctoral research fellow.
Returning to Australia, she worked at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.
She worked on broader research into cancer until her friend’s comments prompted her to focus on brain cancer.
Her pioneering work on brain cancer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute was originally funded by philanthropists, some of whom were parents of young children who had died from brain cancer.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says, of her conversations with some of these parents.
Her closeness with the medical fraternity allowed her to have first hand access to cancer patients and to the brain tissues of those who had died.
She and her team regularly deal with people who they know will not survive their cancer. “It can be quite confronting for the team,” she says.
Jenkins says there is no known cause of brain cancer. While still rare, it is on the increase.
She says there needs to be a sense of urgency to find treatments for brain cancer.
‘Thirty years ago, 90 per cent of kids who were diagnosed with it died – now 90 per cent survive’
Jenkins believes that a cure can be found for brain cancer if researchers can get enough funding.
“Breast cancer is a perfect example. Thirty years ago, 75 per cent of women with a diagnosis died within five years of that diagnosis. Now, more than 90 per cent survive for more than five years. That’s due to massive investments into medical research as well as education around awareness of early detection.”
“It’s the same with leukaemia. Thirty years ago, 90 per cent of kids who were diagnosed with it died – now 90 per cent survive.
“Imagine if we had the same resources to combat brain cancer.”
“We need to dream big and think about if we had the same collective action – if the whole world decided it was going to cure brain cancer.”
Thanks to the support of philanthropists, Jenkins and her team have been able to get their work to the level where they could attract government funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
But the constant need to apply for grants makes the future uncertain for her staff.
While there is research on brain cancer happening around the world, her team is doing pioneering work in assessing the different types of cancer tumours and working out how to treat them.
She says cancer treatment of the future, including for brain cancer, will focus on the specific nature of the cancer in different people, tailoring treatment to individual needs in more personalised medicine.
Brain tumours can vary, leading to different responses to treatment. “We are developing a powerful new therapy and treatment, but it requires investment to take it to the next level and to see Australia have its first clinical trials using personalised cell therapy to treat brain cancer.”
Hear her story at the Sohn Hearts & Minds conference, which will be held at the Sydney Opera House on November 17.
This article was originally posted by The Australian here.
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