A major medical breakthrough in Australia is being heralded as a godsend for cancer patients ravaged by the side effects of chemotherapy.
Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler, from Mater Research in Brisbane, has discovered a “biological switch” that sends cells in the immune system to “sleep”.
Chemotherapy targets cancer cells, and other fast-growing cells, meaning patients’ immune systems are significantly weakened, causing bacterial infections and other complications in a third of patients.
“So I’ve found a nice little way of putting these normal cells back to sleep so they can resist the chemotherapy treatment,” Prof Winkler told reporters on Wednesday.
“After the chemotherapy, they can wake up and go back to work and replenish blood and the immune system.”
The switch is likely to be triggered by an intravenous drug administered simultaneously with chemotherapy.
The drug is expected to be broadly available in hospitals within five years if trials and approvals go according to plan.
Stem cell biologist Professor Andrew Perkins, who works with Prof Winkler to adapt her discovery to clinical applications, said the drug had yielded promising results in animal testing.
It was the first drug in decades that would significantly reduce the risk of infection in cancer patients, he said.
Cancer patient Robert Simpson, who is being treat for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, said the discovery was an amazing step forward.
He said he was often tired, had constant mouth ulcers, lost his ability to taste and his body temperature would rise to dangerous levels.
“Any relief that you can get – any less stress that you can get – is going to increase your chances of getting through the cancer, because stress kills,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to stay positive if you have something niggling away at you all the time.
“This is something that’s going to help, well not me, but people worse than me … how can you turn your back on that?”