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HKU Participates in Promising Clinical Trial on Immunotherapy Treatment for Nasopharyngeal Cancer Patients

28 March 2017

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has collaborated with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia since 2008 to conduct an international clinical trial of an immunotherapy treatment.  With eight years of testing, it has demonstrated promising clinical responses in patients with nasopharyngeal cancer.  The full results of the clinical trial have just been published in the international journal OncoImmunology.

Nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharynx is a centrally located region in the head, between the posterior part of the nasal passage and the soft palate, and is connected to the pharynx underneath.  Nasopharyngeal cancer, also known as “Canton tumour”, is the malignant changes in the tissues of the nasopharynx.  It is the most common head and neck cancer in Hong Kong and is more common in southern part of China than in Western countries.  In 2014, there were 834 new cases of nasopharyngeal cancer in Hong Kong, with 614 cases of males and 220 cases of females. 

Nasopharyngeal cancer is associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, one of the human herpesviruses, in a manner analogous to the association of hepatitis B virus and liver cancer.  More than 90% of the world’s population is infected with EB virus, but only a small number of people will develop the cancer.  EBV is hidden in nasopharyngeal carcinoma cells.  The blood serum of most nasopharyngeal cancer patients contains one or more antibodies directed against EB virus. 

T cell immunotherapy

The immunotherapy treatment involves taking blood from each patient, effectively ‘training’ their killer T immune cells, then reinfusing the cells into the patients.  The process involves boosting the killer T cells to target the virus, destroying the infected cancer cells.

Research method

The Phase I clinical trial was carried out in two groups of patients in Queen Mary Hospital of Hong Kong and the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia in 2008-2016.  The Phase I clinical trial tested the safety of the immunotherapy treatment.  The first group consisted of terminally ill nasopharyngeal cancer patients who had become resistant to the standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  The second group consisted of nasopharyngeal cancer patients who had previously received the standard treatments and showed no sign of the disease, but based on prior clinical experience, were at high risk of the cancer returning.

Research results

The first group of twenty patients with aggressive metastatic cancer were terminally ill with nasopharyngeal cancer and joined the trial after their cancers became resistant to the standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  The researchers observed disease control in 60% of patients with aggressive metastatic cancer and a median survival of 15.7 months after receiving the T cell therapy.

At the moment, immunotherapy is usually only given to patients with late-stage cancer; however, a second group of nine patients received the treatment as a preventative measure.  These nine patients in the preventative treatment group had previously received the standard treatments and showed no sign of the disease, but based on prior clinical experience, were at high risk of the cancer returning.  Six of those nine patients remained free of disease at end of the clinical trial.

Professor Dora Kwong Lai-wan, Clinical Professor, Department of Clinical Oncology, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU points out, “We believe that these survival rates are better than we would expect to see in patients who hadn’t received the T cell treatment. We can’t say conclusively yet, but we believe that the T cell treatment delayed the recurrence of the cancer in this second group of patients.

“The incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer in Hong Kong is higher than other areas.  We are delighted for the opportunity to collaborate with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in this immunotherapy treatment clinical study.  HKU and QIMR Berghofer are currently conducting a Phase II trial testing the immunotherapy treatment in patients who are in first recurrence after radiotherapy.  We also plan to introduce the technique to Hong Kong and establish an accredited immune cell laboratory.  It is expected that more nasopharyngeal cancer patients in Hong Kong will be benefited.”

About the research team from HKU

The research team members from HKU include Professor Dora Kwong Lai-wan, Clinical Professor of Department of Clinical Oncology; Professor John Malcolm Nicholls, Clinical Professor of Department of Pathology; and Dr Victor Lee Ho-fun, Clinical Assistant Professor of Department of Clinical Oncology, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU.

About QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute is a world leading translational research institute focused on cancer, infectious diseases, mental health and a range of chronic disorders. Working in close collaboration with clinicians and other research institutes, their aim is to improve health by developing new diagnostics, better treatments and prevention strategies.  QIMR Berghofer gratefully acknowledges the support of the Queensland Government and many generous donors from Hong Kong.  For more information about QIMR Berghofer, please visit www.qimrberghofer.edu.au.

About Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong

Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU, is the oldest local institution of higher education in Hong Kong.  It was founded as the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese in 1887, was renamed as the Hong Kong College of Medicine in 1907 and became the premier founding Faculty when the University was established in 1911.  From its modest beginnings, the Faculty has grown to become the largest faculty of the University, with over 400 full-time academic and academic-related staff and 800 research and research-related support personnel.  The undergraduate student population is about 2,900 and postgraduates number 1,500.  The Faculty is comprised of 14 departments, School of Biomedical Sciences, School of Chinese Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Public Health and a number of strategic centres of research excellence.  For more information about Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, please visit www.med.hku.hk.

To use the press release photo(s) for any publishing, publicity and related purpose, photo courtesy should be given to “Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong”.

(From left) Dr Victor Lee Ho-fun, Clinical Assistant Professor of Department of Clinical Oncology, Professor Dora Kwong Lai-wan, Clinical Professor of Department of Clinical Oncology and Professor John Malcolm Nicholls, Clinical Professor of Department of Pathology; Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU participated in this clinical study. 


Professor Dora Kwong Lai-wan, Clinical Professor of Department of Clinical Oncology, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU points out that the T cell immunotherapy treatment demonstrated promising clinical responses in patients with nasopharyngeal cancer.

 

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