New Zealand researchers have found a new way to fight chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, a blood cancer that affects one in 400 Kiwis over the age of 70.
Haematologist Robert Weinkove of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research said bone marrow transplantation was currently the only curative treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and involved replacing the immune system of patients with that of a matched donor.
Such transplants can be problematic: not all patients find a donor; patients are prone to infections for months or even years afterwards; and the treatment can be so toxic that it is not suitable for many.
Dr Weinkove said that to identify lower-risk immune therapies, researches focused on a rare type of immune cell called "invariant natural killer T" (iNKT).
"Previous research at the Malaghan Institute and overseas has shown that iNKT cells can be activated by a compound called alpha-galactosylceramide (alpha-GalCer), which was first found in a Japanese marine sponge.
"This leads to significantly enhanced tumour-specific immune responses."
Dr Weinkove collected blood samples from 40 patients with CLL and from 30 healthy volunteers of a similar age, from the greater Wellington region.
He then undertook a series of laboratory tests to compare the number and function of the iNKT cells from these individuals.
"We found that we could detect and isolate iNKT cells from individuals with CLL, and that these cells were able to respond to alpha-GalCer," he said.
"This is important because it suggests that iNKT cells remain functional in these patients, and that targeting them with treatments like alpha-GalCer might be a way of enhancing their ability to drive anti-cancer immune responses."
The researchers will next see if the laboratory results can be replicated in patients.
"Designing and running safe clinical trials is a major undertaking, but we are exploring a number of ideas, including the possibility of giving alpha-GalCer to patients with blood cancers to boost their immune responses."
The research was published in the scientific journal Haematologica.