Cancer's Vanishing Act
As he undergoes immunotherapy for metastatic kidney cancer at Macquarie University Hospital, Australia’s former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb reflects on the contribution of science to the cutting-edge treatment he is receiving.
Just last year, Professor Ian Chubb – retired Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University and Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2011 to 2016 – attended the 25-year anniversary of former colleague Peter Doherty’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Doherty researched the effect a virus has on a cell, discovering how our immune system responds to a virus. That discovery, decades on, has informed the latest generation of cancer treatments: targeted immunotherapies. So when Professor Chubb himself began undergoing targeted immunotherapy for metastatic kidney cancer, he found himself the unexpected beneficiary of some great science.
“The treatment I’m having has its origins in basic science research 30 to 40 years ago,” said Professor Chubb, who is receiving the drug through a clinical trial at Macquarie University Hospital.
“That early research looking at how our immune system recognises a virus as foreign and tries to kill it. It was not an anti-cancer project in those early days; it was about learning more. To me, that indicates the fundamental importance of basic science and the long-term commitment needed simply to understand well how things work.
“It’s not just Peter Doherty, important as he was, but a great many scientists have made contributions over the decades to the treatment I’m getting. Even I myself had used more primitive monoclonal antibodies in my own lab as a young researcher in the neurosciences.
“The amount of work required to get to the point where we can inject antibodies into a human being to treat a cancer is simply enormous!”
Professor Chubb was diagnosed with clear cell renal cancer in 2016. He had his kidney removed at the time, but a few months later, unexpectedly, metastatic lesions were found in his lungs.
His oncologist in Canberra referred him to Professor Howard Gurney, Director of Clinical Trials in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University, to see if he was a suitable candidate for an immunotherapy trial.
Macquarie University is a growing leader in making available to patients the latest and most promising medical treatments. Immunotherapy trials for treating cancer have become one of the Hospital’s biggest and most important.
“What immunotherapies aim to do is switch the immune system back on at the microscopic level where cancer cells and immune cells interact,” said Professor Gurney.
“The big change is that this approach doesn’t target the cancer. Instead, it targets the immune cells and tries to activate them to block the cancer. So far it is showing great promise. In some patients, we are seeing cancers disappear.”
Such is the case for Professor Chubb, whose last CT scan and blood tests showed him to be cancer-free. The experimental drug has wiped away any trace of Chubb’s cancer.
Chubb’s experience, while still not representative of the majority of patients, is an increasingly common story from the world of cancer immunotherapy, which is revolutionising the field of oncology.
“My alternative to this treatment would have been chemotherapy, which would have had a very different effect on my quality of life and possibly, as it turns out, a very different prognosis,” he said.
“With the immunotherapy treatment, in almost one and a half years of treatment, I’ve really only had four days of downtime, and to see CT scans of my lungs with no visible lesions is stunning.
“I never expected to be a subject in a research project, but I am happy that the dedication of all the scientists and clinicians over many years has led to my treatment.”