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Sydney hospital begins trials of personalised cancer vaccines -

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MARK COLVIN: Imagine if your own cancer cells held the key to your treatment?

Doctors at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital have been given ethical approval to start human trials of personalised cancer vaccines.

The vaccines are crafted from the tumours of cancer patients and designed to kick-start their immune system to fight the disease.

Jessica Kidd reports.

JESSICA KIDD: Vaccines have long been a powerful weapon in the battle against infectious disease. Now they're being used to fight cancer.

Oncologists at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital have been given the green light to treat cancer patients with vaccines developed from their own tumour cells.

STEPHEN CLARKE: So it's a bit like vaccinating people against infections; you hope that you can get things like natural killer cells, other forms of effecter cells in the immune system that normally can kill cancers to be more revved up than it has been just through the patient developing the cancer.

So you get it to react to the chemical that you're giving with the cancer cells in the hope that there is a bystander effect that treats the cancer more effectively.

JESSICA KIDD: Professor Stephen Clarke is leading the trial of the vaccine known as RGS-H4K.

He says it can be used to treat a range of advanced diseases such as breast, bowel, lung and pancreatic cancers.

STEPHEN CLARKE: Well we're hoping that we see some beneficial effect, and for us beneficial effect would be either shrinkage of the cancer or stabilisation of the cancer and also for that patient to be living longer than we would have otherwise expected.

JESSICA KIDD: To be eligible for the trial, patients must first have their tumour removed and stored in a freezer before starting conventional cancer treatment.

If a patient relapses and there are no useful treatment options left, they'll receive the personalised vaccine in three doses over nine weeks.

The vaccine is made using the patients’ own frozen tumour cells and is combined with an immuno-stimulant to activate an immune response.

Because the cells are derived from the patient's own body, Professor Clarke says the side-effects will be minimal.

STEPHEN CLARKE: What we would hope is that we would avoid the usual side-effects of things like chemotherapy, where you can get effects like nausea and vomiting and drops in white cell counts and fatigue.

We would hope that these treatments would be devoid of those. We still expect that there might be some form of side-effect and things like allergic type symptoms, so patients might get a local reaction a bit like when we used to have small pox vaccines.

You might get a... you might get fevers, you might get some shaking-type chills if there was an allergic reaction. But it's more that type - of allergic type reaction rather than the completely debilitating effects that we see with some types of chemotherapy.

JESSICA KIDD: It's hoped the vaccines will buy more time for people with late stage cancer.

But Professor Stephen Clarke believes they could also be used to prevent patients from relapsing.

STEPHEN CLARKE: If someone's had a cancer you can then inoculate them to try and prevent that particular cancer from coming back. So we're putting…giving ourselves a pretty big challenge to try and treat established cancer, because that may not be the long term… where the long term greatest benefit is.

JESSICA KIDD: Personalised vaccines have already shown promising results in dogs.

Veterinarian Dr Jennifer Millar used the vaccine to treat her kelpie's advanced liver cancer.

JENNIFER MILLAR: She had the tumour removed but it was quite… it was incompletely removed because it was wrapped around some large blood vessels.

So they didn't get good margins but we had a vaccine made and um… and she's had that and she wasn't expected to live particularly long, there wasn't any exact time put on it. But ah… she's still alive today and so that was four years ago, so she's doing pretty well.

JESSICA KIDD: Sally the kelpie is almost 17-years-old and her biggest worries now are old age and arthritis.

Dr Millar again.

JENNIFER MILLAR: Put it this way, if it were me (laughs) instead of my dog I wouldn't you know… I wouldn't bat an eyelid, I'd go for it because I think I have seen and you know heard about other success stories.

JESSICA KIDD: The clinical trial is being conducted by oncologists at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital and is being funded by the biotechnology company Regeneus.

MARK COLVIN: Jessica Kidd.