Immunotherapy as the future of mainstream cancer treatment

15 September 2015

Dr Piu Bill Wong (2002 Croucher Scholarship) is a seasoned molecular biologist and budding immunologist working on the future of cancer treatment – specifically, the prospect of using the immune system, rather than chemotherapy, as a mainstream cancer treatment.

The problem with chemotherapy is that cancer cells can quite quickly develop resistance. Active immunotherapy has, in some cases, proven to be a more effective cancer treatment.

Immunotherapy works by producing a “vaccination-like” trigger to the immune system, by the activation of T cells (also know as T lymphocytes) such as anti-PD1 and anti-PDL1.

The use of immunotherapy in the treatment of melanoma, the least common and most fatal form of skin cancer, demonstrates the positive impact that immunotherapy can have on a cancer sufferer’s prognosis. When detected in later stages, the average prognosis for melanoma is usually only a few months. However, patients who receive immunotherapy may be given a significantly better prognosis of four or five years.

Piu Bill Wong

Celgene, the American biotechnology company Wong works for, develops innovative treatments for diseases and is exploring the possibilities of the immune system in eradicating tumours using an anti-CD47 antibody. The idea behind anti-CD47 antibody immunotherapy is to target a pathway on tumours known as CD47, a protein that is rife in all cancers, and tricks the immune system into thinking that it is a normal cell. By blocking the pathway, it is possible to unmask the immunogenic/foreign nature of tumour cells and thus promoting the phagocytic uptake of tumour debris from macrophages within a tumour.

As a Translational Development Scientist at Celgene, Wong concentrates on identifying biomarkers in cancer patients. Biomarkers are molecular or cellular events that link a specific environmental exposure to a health outcome and are used to understand relationships between biological and environmental cause and effect in the development of diseases. In Wong’s job, the aim is to discover biomarkers that may predict whether or not a patient is a suitable candidate for immunotherapy.

This research into biomarkers is key to the growth of immunotherapy as a mainstream cancer treatment, as although clinical observations have been dramatically positive in patients who do respond to the drugs, the response rate is currently 10-25%.

Through his work, Wong sees firsthand the profoundly positive impact immunotherapy is having on cancer patients and he believes that through continued research on biomarkers, it will be possible to pinpoint the precise preconditions necessary for the successful treatment of cancer using immunotherapy, therefore ensuring that all patients who are deemed suitable for the treatment have a high chance of responding well.

Wong has both a BS (2000) and a MSc (2002) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where he majored in molecular biology. In 2002, he received a Croucher scholarship to attend Stanford University, where he completed a PhD (2002-2008) in Cancer Biology. In 2008, he received a Croucher scholarship for his postdoctoral studies (2008-2012) at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has published over ten peer-reviewed publications among prestigious international journals such as Genes and Development and Blood.

To view Dr Bill Wong’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.