Scientists working at one of the most promising frontiers of cancer research have received a $5 million boost from the Government.

A funding deal announced today by Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods will put $4.9m over five years toward the cost of a major project co-led by the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute.

At the centre of it was a revolutionary immunotherapy intervention called CAR T-cell cancer therapy.

In this transfusion-like therapy, some of the patient's own hunter-killer T cells are modified to express a specific receptor - a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) - to redirect them against ­cancer cells.


The cells are then administered to the patient to target the tumour.

Scientists say the technology – the focus of a partnership between Malaghan and China's Hunan Zhaotai Medical Group – represents a major breakthrough, given these genetically created T cells chase cancer around the body until it's wiped out.

The New Zealand-China project – of which the new funding would make up an estimated 40 per cent of the total cost – ultimately sought to establish CAR T-cell manufacturing here, and develop new therapies for clinical use.

It had the potential to offer benefits over existing second- generation CAR T-cells currently licensed in the US, Europe and Australia.

The two research organisations have formed a joint venture – Wellington Zhaotai Therapies Ltd – which retains international rights for the construct outside China.

Malaghan Institute general manager Mike Zablocki said the co-funding was a "clear signal" from the Government that it saw a big future for human immune therapy – for both the health and wealth of New Zealand.

"This is a growing, high tech, knowledge-intensive sector," he said.

"This partnership funding will help transform our existing plans for a single phase I trial – already well under way – into a highly focused programme of expanding economic opportunity for New Zealand.


"We expect clinical trials to enable early access to CAR T-cell therapy for New Zealanders, and to establish the local manufacturing capability and regulatory processes needed for these personalised treatments."

It was hoped these would reduce the barriers to entry for similar therapies and ultimately improve access to effective new cancer treatments for all Kiwis, he said.

The new funding was announced alongside three other major research grants, amounting to a total $14.4m.

The others aimed to develop new applications of UV light to seeds and seedlings to increase plant productivity; rapidly improve the quality of Pinus Radiata tree stocks; and improve livestock growth and health, and reduce insecticide use, through genetically improved endophytes in ryegrass.

"These investments will help us find the answers to some of our greatest challenges – cures to deadly diseases, improving food resilience, and transitioning to a lower carbon and more productive economy," Woods said.

"This kind of research will help make New Zealand's economy more sustainable."

Read an in-depth feature about New Zealand cancer immunotherapy research here.