When people talking about their experiences of cancer, they usually refer to a surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy treatment.

These three staples have been used by doctors for decades to try to remove as much of the tumour as possible then kill the cancerous cells with high energy beams and drugs.

Chemotherapy kills cells in the body that are in the process of splitting into two new cells.
As cancer cells divide much more often that normal cells, chemotherapy drugs are much more likely to kill cancer cells.

However, chemotherapy also kills other healthy cells going through their natural division process which causes many negative side effects.


In recent years there have been huge scientific advances in the treatment of cancer including nanoparticle drug delivery, hormone therapy and stem cell transplants.

The game-changer however seems to be in a field called immunotherapy which has recently had some incredible results in treating blood cancers and it's about to start here in New Zealand.

Your immune system made up of a network of cells, tissues and organs that are designed to protect your body against organisms and disease by attacking anything that isn't recognised.

Immunotherapies adds arsenal to the immune system by rewiring it in a way that it can attack with more strength and precision.

One of the most exciting treatments for blood cancers right now is known as CAR T cell therapy. This therapy extracts a type of white blood cell called T-cells from the patient and genetically modifies them in a laboratory to express a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (the CAR bit).

This receptor is designed to recognise the chemicals released from cancer cells, similar to how a dog sniffs out a bone. The modified T-cells are then reinfused back into the patient and once they "sniff" out a cancer cell in the body they immediately bind to it and attack it.

Unlike chemotherapy which kills all types of cells, CAR T kills only cancer cells so the side effects are much more moderate in comparison.

It's also proved very effective for certain blood cancers with remission rates of up to 94 per cent in severe cancer types. These numbers come from clinical trials, where most of the patients on the trial were accepted because they had exhausted all other forms of treatment.


Currently New Zealand has one genetically modified human (David Downs) who has been through the CAR T process and is now happily living in remission from his lymphoma blood cancer after being given a terminal cancer diagnosis in New Zealand.

He survived by fundraising and paying for a CAR T clinical trial in America. This week another terminal cancer Kiwi patient - Kurt Brunton was just accepted onto the same US trial after successful fundraising.

Spending over $1 million dollars and flying to America to save a life is definitely life changing for the individual, but still inaccessible to many New Zealanders who need it.

The great news is that researchers at the Malaghan Institute in Wellington are working on the third generation of CAR T treatments to help the treatment become more effective and easier to deliver and they plan to run their first clinical trials in 2019.

Like everything in research, money is always an issue and a fundraising campaign has just been launched to help the Malaghan Institute fund their research.

In the meantime we can look forward to more genetically modified humans walking among us knowing that just one CAR T treatment could protect them from their cancer for the rest of their life while celebrating the kiwi researchers behind their miraculous recovery.


Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson