Changing the Way We Think About Cancer Treatment

We owe our survival to our immune system. It protects us from a constant barrage of attacks, whether they come from outside the body, like bacteria, viruses and fungi, or from inside in the form of cancer. One of the many questions occupying researchers around the globe, including scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research is: how do cancers and other infectious diseases evade the immune system’s sophisticated protective mechanisms?

By understanding the immune system and how it influences cancer development and progression, a relatively new approach to the treatment of cancer is evolving. ‘Cancer immunotherapy’ is an approach that recruits the body’s own immune system to improve outcomes for cancer patients. It is proving to be a very powerful approach.

Most traditional cancer drugs target the tumour. This exciting new approach to cancer treatment involves creating drugs that target cells of the immune system, not the cancer. We take the immune system – something that exists naturally in the body – and strengthen it to protect against or attack a specific tumour type.

International research and technological developments over the past three decades have led to important cancer immunotherapy breakthroughs, including the preventative vaccine for cervical cancer, and the first cancer immunotherapy ever proven to extend the lives of patients with metastatic melanoma. At the Garvan Institute, our immunotherapy research is a collaboration between the immunology and cancer divisions. This is an example of a wider shift in the dynamics of the research community.

Partly driven by the natural progression of research, and partly by financial necessity, scientists are now combining their skills, knowledge, and resources (within Garvan, across Australia and the globe) to unravel the mechanisms by which different systems within the body ‘talk’ to one another, and how this ‘talk’ influences the development, progression, treatment, and prevention of many diseases – not just cancer.

Instead of focusing on a single specialty, such as immunology or neuroscience, many researchers are now making significant breakthroughs by taking an inter-disciplinary approach.  By doing this, Garvan researchers hope to find more effective ways of treating, and ultimately preventing, some of the most common and often devastating diseases affecting our community today.

To find out more about Garvan’s cancer or immunology research, visit

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