Hong Kong's richest man donates $ 4.5 million to Sydney cancer trial



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"I left a very upset surgeon all scrubbed in his greens [scrubs] and ready to operate, "Biddle said.

"It turned out to be the only thing they could offer to someone like me as well as go home and get my business in order."

The knowledge that cancer can return at any time is a constant companion.

"When you are diagnosed with a cancer like this, you are in a state of shock. You do not know what to do or where to turn. It is a terrible situation," he said.

A first-line immunotherapy test aims to reprogram immune system cells to hunt and kill lethal tumors in patients with mesothelioma and advanced pancreatic cancer.

Experimental therapy has the potential to treat dozens of cancers, including lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and some types of breast cancer, targeting a specific protein on the surface of tumor cells.

The project is led by the clinical genetics and hematologist specialist Professor John Rasko, newly established Li Ka Shing Cell and the Gene Therapy Initiative, University of Sydney.

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing.

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing.Credit:Reuters

The Li Ka Shing Foundation – a philanthropic organization of Hong Kong's wealthiest man, Li Ka-shing – donated $ 4.5 million to the University to expand the study beyond pancreatic cancer, including patients with other cancers, mesothelioma .

The Foundation's grant will also enable the creation of a gene therapy workforce and infrastructure to drive the development and manufacture of immunotherapies in Australia.

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"There's only one word for it," Biddle said. "Hope."

"If there is hope for a treatment that will possibly cure these cancers, it would be an unbelievable result," he said.

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate for all major cancers, with 8.7% of patients surviving five years after being diagnosed. Almost 3000 Australians die of pancreatic cancer each year. It is notoriously difficult to detect and is usually only diagnosed when it spreads.

In 2016, 672 Australians died of mesothelioma.

The first immunotherapy drugs are aimed at "breaking the brains" of the body's immune response to cancers, re-energizing white blood cells called T-cells. But many patients do not respond to treatments.

The new study has a different tinge, focusing on patients with advanced pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma who have a specific marker – a protein on the surface of their cancer cells called mesothelin.

The researchers will extract the T cells from these patients and genetically reprogram these immune cells to create receptors for chimeric antigens on their surface (CAR T cells) that are attracted to mesothelin.

Professor John Rasko will lead the project at newly established Li Ka Shing Cell and the Gene Therapy Initiative.

Professor John Rasko will lead the project at newly established Li Ka Shing Cell and the Gene Therapy Initiative.Credit:James Brickwood

These reprogrammed immune cells will be injected back into patients, where they multiply, hunt and destroy cancer cells, the researchers assume.

"We just have to inject a small amount of [CAR-T] cells; the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen – but these cells are able to proliferate and grow in the body – like normal immune cells – and are capable of killing tens of thousands of cancer cells sequentially, "said Professor Rasko.

"It's terribly exciting," Professor Rasko said. "It's cutting edge, make no mistake."

CAR-T immunotherapy has been approved as a treatment in Europe for specific types of leukemia and lymphoma, but is the first in Australia to target solid tumors.

Mesothelin is found on the surface of up to 85 percent of pancreatic cancers and up to 90 percent of mesothelioma.

The protein is also detectable in about a dozen other cancers, including lung, ovarian and connective tissue cancer, as well as about 10 to 15 percent of breast cancers, Rasko said.

"This technique is agnostic for cancer," said Professor Rasko.

"The thing that connects all these cancers together is that they express a specific protein on the surface of the tumor that we can reach with reprogrammed immune cells."

Australian researchers will collaborate with researchers in the US, Canada and Sweden.

"We are in an exciting situation to be able to offer this to patients next year," Professor Rasko said, noting that it was still an experimental treatment.

Kate Aubusson is the health editor for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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