Immune cells in the lymph node
Immunotherapy is an innovative treatment that modulates the body’s immune system to fight disease.
Our researchers are using their knowledge of the immune system to develop immunotherapies for cancer and immune disorders.

Immunotherapy research at the Institute

Our researchers are:

  • Discovering how immune cells respond to, and kill, tumour cells with the goal of finding new ways to manipulate this process to target cancer.
  • Studying whether immune cells can be harnessed to treat brain cancer without triggering significant side effects.
  • Investigating whether immune checkpoint inhibitors could improve treatment of people with certain types of lung, stomach and breast cancer.
  • Examining natural killer cell biology to find ways to use these cells therapeutically, for example to treat melanoma.
  • Developing immunotherapies to treat coeliac disease and type 1 diabetes.  

What is immunotherapy?

Your immune system plays a vital role in protecting you from harmful organisms and substances. It can fight off bacteria and viruses that invade your body, and also destroy cancer cells that arise within your body.

Unfortunately, however, cancer cells often find ways to stop your immune system from eliminating them.

Immunotherapy can help boost the body’s immune system, enabling it to successfully fight off cancer cells. This type of immunotherapy – known as cancer immunotherapy – has been hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer treatment in a generation.

In other cases, an overactive immune system can cause disease. Some people have an immune system that inappropriately responds to harmless substances such as gluten in food. This triggers immune illnesses such as coeliac disease.

In these cases, immunotherapy aims to specifically dampen or supress these abnormal immune responses to treat the underlying cause of disease and reduce symptoms.

T cell therapy

Our researchers are working on an innovative form of immunotherapy that harnesses the body’s own immune cells to kill cancer cells.

Called CAR-T cell therapy, this treatment involves isolating a patient’s immune cells, engineering them to become ‘super killer cells’ and then reinfusing them into the patient to fight their cancer. 

This technique has been successfully used to treat blood cancers but has had mixed results in solid tumours.

Our researchers are studying the biological factors contributing to the success and side effects of CAR-T cells. This work will help inform a better design and safer delivery methods.

Brain cancer is a particular focus for this work, with our researchers are aiming to find an optimum design for CAR-T cell therapy that can kill brain tumour cells with limited side effects.

Graphic of brain cancer immunotherapy process

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

Immune checkpoints are the brakes of the immune system, allowing immune responses to be switched off after a threat – such as a virus infection – is over. Without these brakes, uncontrolled immune responses can cause inflammatory tissue damage and autoimmune disease.

However, some cancer cells take advantage of these brakes, using them to switch off immune cells that would otherwise destroy the tumours.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes, enabling immune cells to attack tumours.

Some of the most exciting new cancer therapies are known as anti-PD1 and anti-CTLA4 immunotherapies. Our researchers are studying these immunotherapies in several preclinical models of cancer, including lung, stomach and breast cancer.

This research could help to identify patients who may benefit from these immunotherapies and lead to future clinical trials aimed at improving patient outcomes.

Natural killer cell therapy

Natural killer cells are part of the body’s first line of defence against infections and cancer.

Our researchers are studying how natural killer cells fight cancer, with the aim of harnessing these cells to specifically detect and destroy the disease.

They have discovered a protein – called CIS – that acts as a brake to dampen natural killer cell activity. Blocking CIS increases anti-tumour activity and reduces melanoma growth in preclinical models.

Our researchers are now partnering with a drug company to develop inhibitors of CIS that may ultimately help patients fight cancer with their own immune system.

Immunotherapy for immune disorders

Immunotherapy can be used to dampen down harmful immune responses, for example in:

  • coeliac disease, which is caused by an inappropriate immune reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat, rye and barley
  • type 1 diabetes, which is caused by the immune system wrongly attacking healthy cells in the pancreas

Our researchers are performing a clinical trial pairing the diabetes immunotherapy with an immunosuppressive agent to test if the combination will slow the progression of type 1 diabetes.

Four researchers photographed in WEHI's galleria

Researchers have developed a way to potentially reduce the toxic side-effects of a type of immunotherapy, in findings that could overcome the pioneering treatment’s biggest limitation.

Dr Ryan Cross in a laboratory

A Cure Brain Cancer Foundation fellowship will support Dr Ryan Cross to undertake research into new immunotherapy treatments for brain cancer in adults and children.

Research team group photo

Our bodies are constantly fighting off the development of cells that lead to tumours. Researchers have now discovered a protein ‘brake’ within Natural Killer cells that controls their ability to destroy their target tumour cells.

Carrie Bickmore and Misty Jenkins

Funding from Carrie Bickmore’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer Foundation is helping to advance immunotherapy treatments

Photograph of Associate Professor Misty Jenkins

A novel approach to immunotherapy design could pave the way for new treatments for people with an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.