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Groundbreaking research in 2009 involving dendritic cells and sea sponges may see designer vaccines for the treatment of cancer developed at New Zealand’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. The team of researchers includes PhD student Dianne Sika-Paotonu, whose work has taken the vaccine closer to development and earned the young scientist two prestigious awards.

Amazingly, Ms Sika-Paotonu made a promise to her family as an 8-year-old to find a cure for cancer after a close friend died of the disease. Her work puts her in the running to fulfil that promise.

Her research has focused on dendritic cells, which are part of a rare group of immune cells in the human body responsible for initiating immune responses. When functioning properly, dendritic cells can activate T-cells. T-cells are considered the foot soldiers of immune response. Dendritic cells in a cancer patient often don’t work as they should.

Scientists in several international cancer research facilities have been using dendritic cells to try to develop the designer vaccines that they hope will initiate powerful immune responses for destroying cancer tissue. The cancer vaccine is made by loading properly functioning dendritic cells with tumour fragments and injecting them back into the body. However, although this prompts T-cells to become cancer fighters, this treatment is not yet powerful enough to act as a frontline cancer therapy.

While the idea of such vaccines is not new, Ms Sika-Paotonu has been coming up with a way to supercharge the vaccine to improve its effectiveness, and the source of this vaccine breakthrough is from an unusual source – the sea sponge.

“The aim of my PhD project is to devise a simple strategy to enhance the effectiveness of current dendritic cell-based vaccines for the treatment of all cancers,” says Ms Sika-Paotonu.

Under the supervision of Dr Ian Hermans, Head of the Malaghan Institute Vaccine Research Group, and guidance of research fellow Dr Troels Petersen, she has shown that the cancer-killing immune response generated by the dendritic cell-based vaccine is much better when used in combination with a sea sponge extract.

Ms Sika-Paotonu has been coating the dendritic cells in the vaccine with the sea sponge extract and has shown that this causes the dendritic cells to work harder at turning the T-cells into cancer killers, promoting a more potent tumour-killing response than cancer vaccines currently being trialled.

By boosting the anti-tumour immune response directed by the dendritic cell cancer vaccine, Ms Sika-Paotonu’s research offers the promise of a more effective cancer therapy that doesn’t come with the side effects of current conventional treatments.

“This is a tumour-specific therapy, meaning only tumour cells are targeted for destruction, unlike other conventional cancer treatments that can destroy both normal and cancer tissue,” says Ms Sika-Paotonu.

Ms Sika-Paotonu’s work is particularly relevant to New Zealanders as she is currently working on melanoma (skin cancer). New Zealand has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

In 2008, Ms Sika-Paotonu won the Advancing Human Health and Wellbeing category of the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Awards for her cancer vaccine research, as well as the 2008 Colmar Brunton New Zealand Research Excellence Award in December.

For more up-to-date information on Dianne Sika-Paotonu, see her profile on the Victoria University of Wellington website.

    Published 25 March 2009, Updated 25 November 2016