Each year more than one-third of cancer patients who receive chemotherapy in Australia suffer from an infection during, or soon after, their treatment because their immune system is suppressed from the aggressive treatment.
That’s because the drugs used to kill cancer cells can also kill healthy cells, leaving patients vulnerable to infection and suffering lasting side-effects.
But Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler and her team at Mater Research hope to prevent this for people by protecting stem cells in the bone marrow from the effects of chemotherapy. They recently made an incredible breakthrough—discovering how to ‘flick a biological switch’ that enables the immune system to be better protected during treatment.
“Usually when chemotherapy is finished, a patient has nothing left to fight infection. This is because, with the immune system temporarily down, patients become susceptible to bacterial infections,” A/Prof Winkler explained.
“I've found a way of putting these normal Haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) back to sleep so they can resist the chemotherapy treatment.”
The HSCs cells can then be woken up after cancer treatment so they can help remake the immune system, improving the patient’s ability to recover.
“These HSC cells are important in regenerating immune systems,” A/Prof Winkler said.
“This development has the potential to help cancer patients recover faster from their chemotherapy, and to greatly reduce the health costs of cancer treatment.” Associate Prof Winkler said.
No one understands the importance of the breakthrough more than Simone, a young lawyer who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32.
“I walked out of the doctor’s office and my fiancé was holding my hand really tightly and my brother was on the phone calling everyone. I was petrified I was going to die,” Simone said
Cancer can be scary, but the fear of chemotherapy was overwhelming for Simone.
“I’d never had anyone close to me go through chemo so my knowledge of it came from what was in the movies and losing my hair was a big concern,” she said
“It seems silly given my life was at risk, but I had very thick long blonde hair and I’d been growing it for my wedding and all those good things.”
Once her treatment started, Simone—like so many others—suffered severe side-effects as a result of the chemotherapy that was trying to save her life.
“It was painful and it was emotionally draining. I remember being wheeled through the hospital in a wheelchair and I’d lost my hair and I looked like someone with cancer. I saw people looking at me with pity,” Simone said.
“For me, finding a cure—or prevention—for cancer is first and foremost, improving the way cancer is treated is also important because trying to get better was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Thankfully, Simone’s story ends on a real high.
With her treatment behind her, and after being given a clean bill of health, there were happy times ahead as Simone and James tied the knot in 2013 and celebrated the birth of son Atticus, now two, and daughter Sydney, who was born in January 2018.
A/Prof Winkler’s team has also had more great news, with pre-clinical studies showing a reduction in chemotherapy-induced side effects, and an increased survival rate following multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
“By treating these side effects, patients can have their quality of life enhanced and, for some, the cost of their cancer treatment is almost halved,” A/Prof Winkler said.
This year, A/Prof Winkler and her team hope to assess how their discoveries can potentially help other Australian cancer patients and in the longer term, investigate strategies that may improve outcomes for men with advanced prostate cancer—altering the environment around their tumour so it becomes less supportive of tumour growth.
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