Publish Date: 
Wednesday, March 22, 2023 - 15:00

QUT scientists developing precision treatment to boost cancer patients’ immune systems 

QUT scientists at the Translational Research Institute (TRI) are harnessing a new class of pharmaceutical compounds, known as aptamers, to develop a drug to boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

Led by QUT Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Group Leader, Dr Laura Croft, the team is focusing on an aptamer-based treatment to create a highly specific and effective new therapeutic suitable for a range of cancers.

According to Dr Croft, aptamers are very short synthetic strands of DNA or RNA, which have significant advantages as targeted treatments. 

“Aptamers have the ability to bind specifically to a precise target on a cell, they are cheaper and easier to manufacture, and have low or no immunogenic properties, which means that they cause low or no side effects,” said Dr Croft.

Dr Croft is building on her expertise in RNA drug development to identify novel aptamers to block a ‘masking’ protein they discovered on the cell membrane of many different types of cancers, including lung and breast cancers.

“This protein stops the cancer cells from being ‘seen’ and destroyed by the body’s immune system,” said Dr Croft.

“When we block the protein, it allows the body’s immune cells, T-cells, to recognise the cancer cells and generate a much stronger response to killing the cells.

“If successful, our drug would work in a similar way to the current immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs, but with the added advantages that an aptamer offers.” 

Dr Croft and her collaborators identified the drug target using artificial intelligence (AI), and routinely incorporate bioinformatics, molecular modelling approaches into her drug discovery process.  

It’s an approach which Dr Croft said improved target selection and reduced or eliminated off-target effects while increasing the therapeutic efficacy of lead molecules.

“I am very committed to continuing to pioneer my efforts in the discovery, development and translation of new RNA-based technologies.

Prior to her current work on aptamers, Dr Croft co-developed a new RNA oligonucleotide cancer drug that was licenced by QUT to CARP Pharmaceuticals, which is looking to raise investor funding to commence a Phase I clinical trial. In laboratory studies, the new drug was found to block cancer cells’ ability to repair DNA damage, leading to cancer cell death. 

“It’s an amazing sense of accomplishment to have developed a new drug from discovery through pre-clinical and toxicology studies to a clinical trial-ready drug product,” said Dr Croft. 

“By focusing on an RNA therapeutic, we were able to target a previously ‘undruggable’ DNA repair protein, which is found in a range of cancers. We are hoping to trial the drug in cancer patients who have exhausted all other treatment options.

“This is why I became a scientist; I wanted to discover new things and improve patient outcomes.”

Dr Croft also has been working with clinicians from Metro South Health hospitals to develop a personalised approach to treating newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. 

Through the MRFF-funded Centre for Personalised Analysis of Cancers, the research group are conducting studies using tissue samples taken post-surgery from patients at the Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) to create tumour organoids, or three-dimensional models of the cancers.

Dr Croft said that by creating individual tumour organoids from the patients, the research team can screen the cancers against a panel of therapeutics in real time.

“We are using the patient’s own tumour cells in the laboratory to test their response to all the available standard-of-care treatments."

“This allows us to see which drugs the tumour best responds to. Our hope in the future, once the approach has been validated in clinical trials, is to be able to advise clinicians so that they can tailor treatment to the patient," Dr Croft said.