08 January 2019

Immunotherapy response could be written in blood: researcher

A WA Health researcher is on a quest to find markers in the blood that could help predict a cancer patient’s likelihood of responding to new immunotherapy treatments.

Drugs that stimulate the immune system can significantly improve a patient’s survival outcomes but these medications are expensive, don’t work for all patients and can cause debilitating side effects such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain and skin rashes.

Fiona Stanley Hospital medical oncologist Clinical Professor Adnan Khattak reveals that currently there is no way of telling which patients will benefit from these drugs that can cost as much as $8,000 to $10,000 per dose.

But he plans to overcome this by identifying predictive markers and using these to develop a simple blood test.

Professor Khattak said that being minimally invasive meant a blood test could be performed regularly, enabling ongoing monitoring of the cancer as it evolved and the identification of mechanisms of drug resistance.

Professor Khattak is one of five researchers awarded a Department of Health Raine Medical Research Foundation Clinician Research Fellowship in the seventh round of the program.

The fellowship will enable him to pursue his research that focuses on two types of cancer – advanced melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, two aggressive cancers for which prognoses is generally poor.

The study will compare how certain markers in the blood differ between patients who respond well to the immunotherapy drugs and those who don’t.

The markers of most interest to Professor Khattak are tumour cells that circulate in the blood of cancer patients’ and genetic defects that can be detected as certain protein expressions.

Clinical Professor Khattak says that having a reliable means of predicting which patients would benefit from immunotherapies will not only spare many from undergoing treatments that would not help them and could even be harmful, but would also provide significant savings to the health system.

The Clinician Research Fellowship program is an initiative of the Department of Health and Raine Medical Research Foundation that enables clinicians to pursue research of relevance to the WA Health system.

The fellowship can be for up to three years depending on the extent of the research proposal. Clinicians are required to continue some of their clinical duties during the period of their fellowship.

Assistant Director General Clinical Excellence Division, Dr James Williamson, said Professor Khattak’s project highlighted some of the valuable research being undertaken by clinician researchers working within Western Australia’s public health system.

Clinician Research Fellowship round seven recipients are:

Dr Nicholas Larkins

Consultant nephrologist, Perth Children’s Hospital

Project: Optimising paediatric kidney transplantation by better human leukocyte antigen matching.

Dr Andrew Toner

Consultant anaesthetist, Royal Perth Hospital

Project: Long-term outcomes after lidocaine infusions for post-operative pain.

Dr Edward Raby

Infectious Diseases Consultant , Fiona Stanley Hospital

Project: The CABIN Fever trial

Clinical Professor Adnan Khattak

Medical oncologist, Fiona Stanley Hospital

Project: Predictive biomarkers of response and resistance to immunotherapy in cancer.

A/Professor Nigel McArdle

Consultant physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

Project: Relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and the development of cardiovascular disease.


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