Making chemotherapy safer for cancer patients

Associate Professor Ingrid WinklerEach year more than one-third of cancer patients who receive chemotherapy in Australia suffer from an infection during, or soon after, receiving treatment as a consequence of the immune suppression linked to chemotherapy.

Mater Research Institute—University of Queensland (MRI–UQ) researcher Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler was awarded a $360,000 Smart Futures Fellowship from the Queensland Government to undertake research into the complications of chemotherapy. The funding was provided over three years 2010–13, and was matched by MRI.

The complications of chemotherapy mainly derive from damage to the stem cells in the bone marrow that regenerate blood and immune systems, leaving patients susceptible to infections. Dr Winkler has identified a factor (E-selectin) in the bone marrow that contributes to these complications. She found that when E-selectin is blocked after chemotherapy—by administering an antagonist—normal stem cells were protected resulting in faster immune recovery. In mice, this translated to less overall chemotherapy induced side-effects and a greatly increased overall survival following multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

Bringing the benefits to patients

Dr Winkler has partnered with a USA biotech company, who plan to start clinical trials to help alleviate the side-effects of chemotherapy in patients.

The research has the potential to help cancer patients recover faster from their chemotherapy, and to greatly reduce the health costs of cancer treatment. In the USA it is estimated that almost half the cost of a cancer treatment is in supporting patients through cancer therapy side-effects.

Cancer patients represent about 1.4 per cent of the population, however about 10 per cent of the total health costs. An estimated 1700 Queensland hospitalisations each year may be preventable if the complications associated with chemotherapy can be better managed.