Please tell us about yourself

Over 11, 500 kilometers away from her hometown in Kerala, PhD student Juby Mathew is seen neck-deep in work at the laboratory of Ferrier Research Institute in Wellington, New Zealand.

PhD candidate Juby Mathew was drawn to the Ferrier Research Institute for the opportunity to further her interest in fields of immunology and cancer vaccines.

“I have been fascinated by the potential for developing and synthesising cancer vaccines since I was an undergraduate—the intricacy of the immune system and the way it can be exploited to treat diseases, such as cancer, is an exciting area of research.”

Juby is the only Indian in Professor Gavin Painter’s research group that is working on discovering vaccines to life-threatening illnesses. Juby in particular is involved with the development of a breast cancer vaccine.

The research on breast cancer vaccine has been underway since 2013, and recently the institute was able to conduct the vaccine trials on animals. Over $5,00,000 are being invested on vaccine research.

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What did you study?

I did my Masters in Biotechnology from St Xavier’e Calcutta and am doing my PhD in Immunotherapeutics from Victoria University of Wellington

Tell us about your work

“Professor Gavin Painter’s group has done leading-edge research in the field of cancer vaccines. To be part of such a highly experienced team is invaluable. I am also part of a wider ecosystem of people, which includes interactions with immunologists at the Malaghan Institute and lots of different high-tech start-ups that are situated on the Callaghan Innovation site. I hope to make a world where no one dies of cancer,”Juby told dna.

Worldwide, more than 500,000 women died of breast cancer in 2011, and incidence rates are increasing in most countries including India. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) estimates that there were 1.5 lakh new cases of breast cancer in India in 2016. Some 70,000 indian women estimatedly died due to breast cancer in 2012 and that number will increase to 76,000 by 2020.

The institute says that before conducting the trials on humans, they ought to be absolutely convinced about it’s potential safety and efficacy and hence more research is required before trials on humans are undertaken.

The vaccine has been trialed on several animals and how it works is well understood within these animal models. It has triggered significant reduction in tumour size over an extended period of time. It has also been used in vitro (outside of the human body) with human blood and has shown promising results. Patients with malignant breast cancer who have not undergone any recent treatment that may influence the results of the trials. Current treatments like chemotherapy and radiation are harsh on patients.

How does your work benefit the community?

“The vaccine has been successful in several different animal species and the next step is clinical trials on humans. To be given permission for human clinical trials is a big step; it means that there is a high likelihood that the treatment will be effective for humans because permission is only given in cases which show significant potential and an expected high probability of success. Although all the cell types are the same in humans as in these animal trials, cell distribution and prevalence is different and therefore, more research must be done to collect more evidence that the vaccine would have the same efficacy in humans as in other animal species,”said a spokesperson from the institute.

The vaccine will trigger activation of natural killer T-cells that directly destroy the tumour cells, according to the team’s hypothesis.

“The vaccine is based on ‘Immunotherapy,’approach, which works by helping the body’s immune system recognise cancer cells and to fight them. Immunotherapy vaccines introduce chemicals to the body which activate the immune response, allowing the body to effectively fight off the cancer by itself,”the spokesperson further said.