World-first skin cancer treatment for transplant patients seeks investor backing

Researchers are appealing for funding to launch clinical trials into a novel drug which could prevent and treat skin cancer in transplant patients.

The University of Queensland’s Frazer Institute Associate Professor James Wells said the novel drug was discovered and developed in partnership with UniQuest’s Queensland Emory Drug Discovery Initiative (QEDDI), a small molecule drug discovery capability based at UQ’s St Lucia campus.

He said the treatment was shown in animal models to reactivate the immune system in the skin and reduce skin cancer growth caused by taking tacrolimus, an immune suppressant that stops organ rejection in transplant recipients.

“Transplant patients have had their lives transformed by immunosuppressive drugs like tacrolimus because they reduce acute rejection rates and increase patient survival,” he said.

“But their unwanted side-effect is that they increase the incidence of skin cancer for transplant recipients, in particular squamous cell carcinomas and Kaposi’s Sarcoma.”

Sunshine Coast man Gerry Hilder, 67, said he had between 20 and 30 skin cancers removed from his body since his kidney transplant in 1996.

“A treatment like this would be brilliant,” he said.

“For someone who is younger than me, especially for women, it’s pretty hard to have skin cancers surgically removed and burnt off, so anything that would provide some relief from this quite nasty side-effect would be really fantastic.”

Associate Professor Wells said the drug Q-2361 could be applied topically on the skin to help “rescue” cancer-killing cells affected by tacrolimus and stop the development of skin cancers.

He said the drug was also effective in helping restore the function of immune cells in the skin affected by other immune-suppressant drugs, sirolimus and everolimus.

“Topically applied, it has great potential for reactivating T-cells and represents a promising strategy to prevent or treat skin cancers in immune-suppressed organ transplant recipients without leading to transplant rejection,” Associate Professor Wells said.

“Organ transplant recipients trapped between the need for immune-suppression and developing potentially lethal skin cancers stand to benefit the most from this potentially life-changing therapy.”

UniQuest CEO Dr Dean Moss said the novel therapeutic approach was an exciting development for the university-based drug discovery engine.

“We hope to bring this first-of-a-kind treatment to market for transplant recipients and we have engaged specialist clinicians who can run clinical trials,” he said.

“But to do so, we need potential partners or investors to help progress it through preclinical development and, ultimately, bring it into the clinic.”

Transplant Australia Medical Director Dr Georgina Irish said skin cancer was the most common cancer affecting solid organ transplant recipients, who were up to 250 times more likely to develop skin cancer.

“It significantly impacts their quality of life and life expectancy,” she said.

“An effective treatment for SCC in organ transplant recipients will greatly improve the lives of countless patients; and the success and longevity of life-saving transplants.”

The paper was published in The Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, the official journal of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer.

It was dedicated to two-time transplant recipient and patient advocate Matty Hempstalk who sadly passed away in 2022.

UniQuest has filed a patent on the molecule.

Media: UniQuest, Brooke Baskin, b.baskin@uniquest.com.au, +61 438 454 029.