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Getting Cancer on the Run by Training Immune Cells to Do the Work

Dr Rob Weinkove caught the research bug early, fed by a grant from The Cancer Research Trust New Zealand to complete his PhD. Ten years later, another Cancer Trust grant and a raft of awards, he is now Clinical Director at the Malaghan Institute in Wellington. He has a new urgency to use what he has learned about vaccines and redirecting the immune cells in cancer patients to fight and kill the tumours, and a long pipeline of new ideas.

“I am working to establish New Zealand’s first clinical trial of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells. This exciting technology involves modifying patients’ immune cells in the laboratory, to ‘re-direct’ them against malignant cells, then growing these modified cells in the lab, before returning them to a patient,” he says. “Two CAR T-cell therapies are licensed in the US and Europe for certain types of blood cancer, and we are working to develop a trial of a next-generation CAR T-cells, which we believe will have additional benefits.”

In collaboration with the Ferrier Institute, Dr Weinkove and his team are also testing new vaccines for their potential activity to fight cancer.

“My particular involvement is in testing these vaccines in clinically-relevant models, using human cells. Our group’s work suggests that cancer vaccines are best employed when there is minimal cancer left, for example after surgery, to prevent late relapse or the development of secondary tumours,” he said. “This contrasts with CAR T-cells which have the potential to be useful in active disease.”

Dr Weinkove said grants from The Cancer Research Trust in 2007 and 2013 were essential and set him up for pushing into new realms of research to support innovative and accessible treatments for cancer.

“My current work has directly stemmed from these earlier Cancer Research Trust funded projects and the experience in conducting research and presenting our findings, both verbally and in written form, have helped immensely.”

His aim is to bring CAR T-cell technology to New Zealand, both in terms of locally-conducted, early phase clinical trials which are at a planning stage now, and by facilitating regulatory approval processes, fast-tracking the introduction of pharmaceutical company trials, and eventually enabling routine availability of the most effective treatments.

CAR T-cell technology has potential to eradicate certain types of blood cancer, even where this has proved resistant to conventional chemotherapies.

“We looked beyond the traditional group of mega pharma companies and are working in a collaborative partnership with a Chinese company that is supportive and bringing their learnings to the project. Our goal is to introduce a safe, effective, affordable next generation CAR-T immunotherapy treatment to our healthcare system,” he said.

“Finding ways to activate a patient’s own immune system with the help of vaccines and CAR T-cell therapy to kill tumours and reduce recurrence is exciting,” Dr Weinkove says. “There are huge potential benefits if we could offer a one-off treatment that could protect against, or even be curative for, some cancers, rather than just prolong life.”


Dr Rob Weinkove was awarded two grants from Cancer Research Trust of New Zealand totalling $205,028. The grants went to clinical research trials that looked at how patients' immune systems could be stimulated to fight against their own cancers.

About the Cancer Research Trust New Zealand

Cancer Research Trust New Zealand is the country’s second biggest independent cancer research charity, funding over $15 million in research and professional development projects since 2002. The Trust provides grants to support New Zealand-based initiatives that will lead to improvements in the prevention, detection, diagnosis or treatment of all types of cancer, or improvements in palliative care. To learn more visit: www.cancerresearchtrustnz.org.nz/we-are-getting-cancer-on-the-run.

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