Dr Stephen Nutt is a recipient of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society – Snowdome Foundation – Leukaemia Foundation Translational Research Project Grant. He is an immunologist that has looked at cell survival and turned it on its head to see how he can then kill cells. His research is fascinating and hopefully it will result in a breakthrough for the treatment of multiple myeloma.
Q.Your area of research speciality is the immune system – that is pretty broad how did you zone in on a protein in multiple myeloma cells?
My research focuses on how our immune system normally functions and in particular I am interested in understanding the factors that control the production of antibodies, which forms the basis of our protective immunity against micro-organisms. Plasma cells, which are the sole source of antibodies in our bodies, are also the cell that becomes cancerous in multiple myeloma. So, a few years back we reasoned that a promising strategy to develop new medicines to treat all patients with multiple myeloma was to search for the proteins that were required for plasma cell survival. This search resulted in us identifying a regulatory protein which we believe can be targeted to block multiple myeloma cell survival. It is really gratifying for me that our focus on the healthy immune cells has led to a new drug target for this cancer.
Q. If you had to summarise what your LLS-SF-LF research project is about in 1 sentence what would it be?
We aim to develop a new class of medicine that will kill all multiple myeloma cells.
Q. What will be the impact of this research for multiple myeloma patients?
Multiple myeloma is a complex disease with many clinical subtypes and a high rate of relapse after treatment. A consequence of this complexity is that patient responses to the available multiple myeloma treatments vary greatly in their effectiveness. We hope to develop an entirely new type of drug that will kill all multiple myeloma cells regardless of their clinical subtype. If ultimately successful, this strategy will offer benefits to a greater proportion of patients.
Q. What has been your most exciting discovery?
We have discovered that most of the regulatory proteins we identified in our research on immune system function are also intimately involved in the formation of blood cell cancers. This highlights that the cellular processes in healthy cells and cancers can be very similar and has pinpointed proteins that we believe can be targeted as the Achilles heel of several blood cancers.
Q. What has been your most frustrating project?
That’s an easy one. We spend several years using sophisticated genomics technologies in an attempt to discover new proteins that are located on the surface of all plasma cells and multiple myeloma cells. Our expectation was that this would be relatively straight forward and that this class of proteins would be targets for new immune therapy approaches. We identified dozens of candidates, but unfortunately, all of the new proteins turned out to be also found at other places in the body, and thus these treatments would lead to potentially very damaging side effects. After several years work, we were left empty handed and frustrated. The silver lining to this failure was that it forced us to redirect our efforts towards the focus on regulatory proteins that ultimately led to this exciting project that has been funded by the Snowdome Foundation.
Q. How important are independent grants funded by Philanthropic donations compared to NHMRC or Pharmaceutical grants?
Essential, especially for high risk: high reward research such as the development of entirely new drug types. The NHMRC and, perhaps surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies are much more conservative in their outlook, making it difficult to get funding to pursue a really new idea or area of research, regardless of how innovative it might be. I also appreciate that philanthropic organizations and donors share with us the drive to make as rapid progress as possible in treating blood cancers.