ZeShan Foundation has been a long-time supporter of the cutting-edge cancer research and training carried out in the collaboration between Australia’s Queensland Berghofer Medical Research Institute (QIMR Berghofer) and Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong. The transfer of knowledge and technology between these institutions has provided Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma patients in Hong Kong and Australia with access to ground-breaking cancer treatment, as well as training to Hong Kong post-doctoral fellows in the efforts to build up local capacity in cancer research and treatment.
“Heal Thyself”: Immunotherapy for “Cantonese tumor”
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma (NPC 鼻咽癌) is an aggressive upper respiratory tract cancer common in East Asia. The 6th most common cancer among Hong Kong males, it’s prevalence in Southern China resulted in the nickname “Cantonese tumor” (廣東瘤). Within the focal area of NPC, the cross-institution research targeted their research on the development of immunotherapy treatment (免疫注射療法), a cell-based treatment that prepares a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. At the time of development, it was hoped that immunotherapy would be more effective in treating NPC in comparison to standard cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and at the same time avoid serious side effects of deafness and loss of taste.
Through their research, scientists resolved to extract killer T-cells, a type of white blood cell widely known as the “cancer assassin”, and prime them in a laboratory setting. Once infused back into the patient’s bloodstream, the “primed” cells are able to target and attack malignant cells from the Epstein-Barr (EBV) virus in NPC tumour cells while leaving normal ones intact.
While immunotherapy was a relatively new form of treatment, experts such as Prof. Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre in the US, had expressed in media interviews the hope that it could potentially replace chemotherapy as the standard cancer treatment within five years.
Phase I Clinical Trial (2009-2012)
In 2008, ZeShan first supported the Phase I clinical trial of this research. The trial took place between 2009 to 2012, recruiting 30 late-stage NPC patients from Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong. The results demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of the developed treatment, improving life expectancy to an overall survival rate of 523 days compared to the 220 days for patients who did not receive the treatment.
Phase II Clinical Trial & Post-Doctoral Fellowship (2015-2018)
In 2015, ZeShan continued its support to the second phase clinical trial of this collaboration. The trial began in September of 2015 and was completed in 2018, throughout which immunotherapy treatment was offered to another 30 patients, in this phase targeting patients in earlier stages of NPC in both Hong Kong and Australia. Patients were given up to 6 killer T-cell infusions over 12 weeks and consistently monitored, but were given standard treatment if their diseases progressed.
One element in this collaboration was a four-month advanced training for Hong Kong post-doctoral fellows to master scientific techniques of producing clinical grade killer T-cells, ensuring a solid foundation for further development of local talent in research and clinical care. The training was conducted at QIMR Berghofer’s manufacturing facility, Q-Gen Cell Therapeutics, which was the first facility in Australia to be granted regulatory approval by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to prepare clinical grade T-cell therapies. This magnifies the hope that Hong Kong could eventually set up its very own accredited laboratory, which would allow the city to prepare its own T-cells rather than having them transported between Australia and Hong Kong.
MOU Signing Ceremony
On 28th August 2015, the two institutions signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining the convergence and collaboration over cutting-edge cancer research and training, supported by ZeShan Foundation. The ceremony was attended by His Excellency the Governor of Queensland, the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, among other guests. Mr. Roy Chen, Director of ZeShan, delivered a speech on behalf of the foundation.