Kiwi and Chinese scientists have teamed up in a multi-million dollar biotech venture driving toward cancer breakthroughs.
Wellington Zhaotai Therapies, a venture between China-based Hunan Zhaotai Medical Group and Wellington's Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, will push for developments in an area of oncology known as CAR-T cell immunotherapy.
This process involves taking a patient's "T cells" and using a particular virus to genetically alter them to express a specific receptor - a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) - on the cell surface.
The cells are then enriched and administered to the patient to target the tumour.
"Our collaborators in China have a substantial pipeline of therapies that have undergone initial clinical trials in China and are now ready to be developed under a western regulatory environment here in New Zealand," Malaghan director Professor Graham Le Gros said.
"This would then lead on to international trials and regulatory approval."
The Malaghan Institute already had an international reputation as an immunology research centre, and had received millions of dollars from organisations such as the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).
"We have always treated our success gaining Government funding as a badge of honour given the high calibre of competition for funding within New Zealand," Le Gros said.
"This track record of investment was a key element in demonstrating our ability to deliver to our partners in China, along with the support we receive from our generous philanthropic donors."
HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson said the new venture, announced in Wellington this afternoon, showed long-term health research investment could have "huge" health and economic benefits.
"This partnership will bring cutting-edge new cellular therapies into New Zealand, providing access to some very promising new treatments," she said.
"It will also attract offshore investment into New Zealand research and development, and pave the way for more collaborations with China who will be an increasingly influential force in health research in the coming years."
Kiwi biotech bound for human trials
Meanwhile, another New Zealand biotech innovation also aimed at cancer is headed for human clinical trials.
BioLineRx Ltd, a biopharmaceutical company focused on oncology and immunology, this month announced it had acquired UK company Agalimmune Ltd, which held a deal with AUT spin-out Kode Biotech.
Kode's star technology, developed by AUT scientist Professor Steve Henry, is a compound called AGI-134, a synthetic alpha-Gal immunotherapy in development for solid tumours.
The compound harnesses the body's pre-existing, highly abundant anti-alpha-Gal antibodies to induce a systemic, specific anti-tumour response to the patient's own tumour neo-antigens.
This response not only kills the tumour cells at the site of injection, but also brings about a durable, follow-on, anti-metastatic immune response.
AGI-134 had completed numerous pre-clinical studies, demonstrating robust protection against the development of secondary tumours in a model of melanoma with a single dose only.
Researchers had also been encouraged by additional pre-clinical studies when combined with a PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, offering the potential to improve the rate and duration of responses in multiple cancer types.
AGI-134 was now in near-clinical development and was expected to commence a first-in-man study in patients with solid tumours in the first half of next year.
Henry said he was excited by the new development.
"I look forward to seeing the results of the upcoming clinical trials, and if they're successful, then Kode and AUT will feel very proud to have been part of their journey towards curing cancer."