DESPITE asbestos products being slowly phased out in Australia since the 1970s, and banned since 2003, they are still around in our homes and public buildings, and deaths from the most common asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma, continue to rise.
The ongoing risk to the public – including do-it-yourself home renovators, predicted to become the next wave of mesothelioma victims – was highlighted by Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Bill Shorten MP in September 2012 when he announced the establishment of the Office of Asbestos Safety. The office is charged with overseeing the staged removal of the toxic material from Australia’s government and commercial buildings.
For Curtin researcher Delia Nelson, the race is on to try to find a more effective way of dealing with this cancer, which generally offers a poor prognosis.
Building on her previous research into the workings of the immune system in relation to asthma and allergies, the experienced microbiologist and organic chemist is investigating how the body’s immune responses can be used to ‘supercharge’ traditional treatments.
“In many instances, it is difficult to surgically remove advanced mesothelioma tumours, and current anti-cancer treatments such as chemotherapy generally only prolong life for months, rather than years,” explains Nelson, who is a Senior Research Fellow within the School of Biomedical Sciences.
“It was assumed that the body’s immune system is knocked out by chemotherapy, but recent studies – including our own observations – show that the immune system is an active participant in attacking the tumour during and after these treatments.”
Pre-clinical studies have shown that the deliberate experimental removal of key components of the immune system during treatment with chemotherapy prevents tumour shrinkage. In contrast, use of immune-enhancing reagents promotes chemotherapy-driven tumour shrinkage.
THESE experiments provide evidence that a working immune system can play a strong role in fighting the cancer during chemotherapy.
“Our approach, therefore, is to ramp up the immune system during these anticancer therapies to get a much better result,” Nelson says. “Our pre-clinical trials have demonstrated that by harnessing the immune system in this way, we can collapse the mesothelioma tumour and make it completely disappear. Our aim is to not only eliminate the tumour, but also provide long-term protection against recurrence.”
Having established scientific proof of principle that this approach can work, Nelson and her collaborators are now investigating the best mechanisms for delivering an enhanced immune response – or ‘self-vaccine’ – within the tumour microenvironment, aided by new equipment within the Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute’s (CHIRI) recently opened CHIRI Biosciences Research Precinct.
A range of options is currently being explored and, while mesothelioma patients might be the immediate target for the treatment, Nelson is also excited by the wider possibilities of this research.
“If it works for these tumours, there will be implications for the treatment of lung cancer and other sorts of tumours, too,” she says.
Story: Claire Bradshaw
Photography: James Rogers