A clinical trial with immune-stimulating drugs will be available for the first time to rare cancer patients living in regional and rural areas through the expansion of a successful clinical trial.

Led by clinician scientists at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) – also known as the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine – the trial uses highly effective combination cancer immunotherapy to treat patients with rare gastrointestinal, neuroendocrine and gynaecological cancers.

On the eve of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Walk Research Run at La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced $1million funding to extend the trial in 2019. Treatment will be available to an additional 60 patients including those from regional and rural areas.

ONJCRI Medical Director, Prof Jonathan Cebon, said the funding would benefit a group of patients for whom there are few effective drugs.

“Australians with rare cancers have limited access to effective treatments due to the lack of understanding of how their cancers will respond to treatment and they are often excluded from large clinical trials,” Prof Cebon said.

“This generous funding from the Australian government will not only result in more rare cancer patients being treated in the existing metropolitan sites, but will also enable us to take our trial to a regional cancer centre.

Working in partnership with Rare Cancers Australia and BMS Ltd, clinicians have already treated 50 patients at three metropolitan centres with the combination immunotherapy, which activates patients’ immune systems to target their cancer.

Prof Cebon said the early responses have been very promising, however not everyone benefits.

“A suite of laboratory tests are also under development which will help guide clinicians to identify those who are most likely respond to treatment, and more importantly, who will not. This means valuable time will not lost for patients by pursuing ineffective treatments.”

Earlier this week, Minister Hunt awarded $1.6 million to ONJRCI and La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine clinician scientist, A/Prof Hui Gan, for a national trial aimed at improving treatment of patients with low survival cancers, including gastrointestinal, thoracic and triple negative breast cancers.

A/Prof Gan and his colleague, Prof Andrew Scott, have pioneered the development of an antibody that they will use to treat patients with cancers for which the five-year survival rates are less than 50 per cent. Importantly this antibody only interacts with a patient’s cancer cells, ensuring normal cells are not affected.

La Trobe Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar said La Trobe welcomed the Minister’s announcements.

“The support of the Federal Government allows our scientists to continue to conduct ground-breaking research with the potential to save so many lives.

“We are especially happy to see that funding has been provided not just for patients living in the city, but also in regional areas, where La Trobe University has a strong presence.”