Of blood, cancer and care


Professor Nic Nicola

12 August 2011

Professor Nic Nicola, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Victoria, talks about his therapy to strengthen white blood cell recovery that has contributed to the better care of 10 million cancer sufferers worldwide.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: Hello, I’m Carolyn Norrie from the NHMRC. I’m speaking today with Professor Nic Nicola of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Victoria. Welcome Nic.

Prof. Nicola: Thank you Carolyn.

Interviewer: When did you first start working in the area of blood cell formation?

Prof. Nicola: Well I started in 1976 when I came back from my first post-doc overseas after my PhD. I came back to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to work with Don Metcalf who was already gaining a big reputation in the regulation of blood cell formation, so I’ve been at the same Institute and still working with Don Metcalf for nearly 35 years.

Interviewer: And I understand you’ve focussed a lot on growth factors for white blood cells, why is that area of interest?

Prof. Nicola: Well white blood cells are involved obviously in defence against infections and when they get over stimulated they can lead to inflammatory diseases and auto immune diseases and cancers so our philosophy going all the way back to when I started was if we knew how these cells were normally regulated by the body - what the molecular regulators were - that we’d be able to manipulate them to dampen down white blood cells when they were giving inflammatory responses or leukemias and stimulating their production when we had a loss of white blood cells- for example after chemotherapy- and that certainly turned out to be a very fruitful approach by us.

Interviewer: So you’re finding that your research is actually given you suitable cancer treatments?

Prof. Nicola: Um yes, not always in a direct line as often happens in research but our focus on the regulators of blood formation led to the discovery of the Colony Simulating Factors or CSF’s - these are protein regulators- and we discovered there are four of those and two of those are now in routine clinical use for treating cancer patients. What they’re predominantly used for is actually to help the white blood cells recover after cancer chemotherapy or radiotherapy but they can also allow therefore the doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy to be increased and this can lead to an increase in cure rate. So these are now standardised clinical treatments around the world and more than ten million patients have benefited from their use.

Interviewer: I know from talking to other researchers that research environment doesn’t get out into the clinical world, how have you ensured that your research does go to the patients who need it?

Prof. Nicola: Well you know being a member of a medical research institute we see the end game of our research as being new treatments for patients - not necessarily papers and journals- and we’ve taken that mission very seriously I think. What we’ve done is we’ve always had clinical colleagues embedded within our program and by that I mean they actually work half time for the hospital and half time for us, and that gives us a direct voice within the hospital. It gives us direct access to clinical trials and most importantly it gives us direct lines of communication with clinicians telling us what patients actually need. So we’ve had that very close clinical connection but we’ve also had to form very strong relationships and alliances with the bio-tech industry and the pharmaceutical industry and the reason for that is that all modern drugs, or most modern drugs, now cost nearly a billion dollars a year to develop and therefore we’re just, even as a country, not in a position to really develop new medicines without intimate partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry and the multi national pharmaceutical industry.

Interviewer: And I understand your research is taking you down a related but slightly new path towards the treatment of auto-immune disorders?

Prof. Nicola: Yes, well as I said at the beginning, white blood cells are involved in immunity and they do good things when they fight bacteria and viruses but when they’re over stimulated or inappropriately stimulated they lead to inflammatory and auto immune diseases particularly things like rheumatoid arthritis or hyper sensitivity reactions like in asthma and so the same regulators and receptors and signalling molecules that do the good stuff can also do the bad stuff in auto immunity, and we’ve recently developed a series of three different antibodies which can suppress this over activation of white blood cells in auto immune and inflammatory diseases and all three of those are either about to or already are in clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis and asthma and we’re hoping over the next five to ten or fifteen years that we’ll be able to see some beneficial effects of those antibodies.

Interviewer: I understand that your new research takes rather a unique approach. Can you tell me about that?

Prof. Nicola: Yes well I don’t know how unique it is but it’s certainly different to the conventional hypothesis-driven approaches I guess. I guess what we’re driven by is we want to find therapeutic targets…that is you know proteins or genes, which we know if we interfere with them we’ll cure disease….and we’re not particularly too concerned whether we have a brilliant hypothesis or whether we can just develop a screen which is entirely unbiased but which can give us that answer as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Interviewer: Professor Nic Nicola thank you for your time today.

Prof. Nicola: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

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You’ll find more information about this and other health and medical research issues on our website, at www.nhmrc.gov.au.