UWA and Douglas partner on immunotherapies

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The University of Western Australia has entered a new collaboration with Douglas Pharmaceuticals to develop immunotherapy treatments for cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy, including the use of already approved checkpoint blocking antibody therapies, has shown positive results for patients in recent years.

However, while the treatment is effective for some patients, others do not respond and the reasons for this are not yet properly understood.

Lead researcher Dr Joost Lesterhuis, a medical oncologist and group leader from the UWA School of Biomedical Sciences, and his team including Dr Anthony Bosco, systems biologist at the Telethon Kids Institute, used a network analysis method to look at how thousands of genes connect with each other in a cancer, and which needed to be activated to respond positively to immunotherapy. 

The team pin-pointed drug combinations that could tip the balance and achieve favourable, long-lasting results.

One of the identified drug combinations, which has been shown to have far greater activity than the use of a single drug on its own, will be developed with Douglas Pharmaceuticals with the aim of progressing into a clinical trial in 2019. 

Dr Joost Lesterhuis said the partnership was an exciting opportunity to translate highly promising research findings into the clinic, with the potential to make meaningful improvements in the treatment of cancer.

“Through the partnership we will be able to perform crucial laboratory studies to optimize treatments and better understand why some patients respond to immunotherapy while others do not,” said Dr Lesterhuis.

“I think it is a fantastic example of how approaches from very different fields of science, in this case mathematics, computer science and cancer medicine, can together give us unique new insights, with the potential to provide new treatments for people with cancer.”

Dr Anthony Bosco commented on the potential power of the technology to identify combinations of existing drugs which have already been shown to be safe.

“This approach paves the way for more rapid clinical development, since a lot is already known about many pharmaceuticals,” he said. “Our approach can help identify new combinations of approved drugs which may be beneficial to patients and may be fast-tracked into clinical development.”

Managing director of Douglas Pharmaceuticals, Jeff Douglas said the company was excited to be collaborating with UWA and the Telethon Kids Institute. 

“We look forward to translating the clever research into smart products for improving outcomes in patients with cancers that do not respond to current therapies,” he said.

Douglas Pharmaceuticals is family-owned and New Zealand's leading pharmaceutical manufacturing company.