Queensland researchers have made a breakthrough that could significantly reduce the suffering and recovery time for chemotherapy patients.

The discovery by Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler from Mater Research allows the immune system to be better protected during the onslaught of chemo, reducing recovery time for patients.

Dr Winkler says the damage done to normal stem cells in bone marrow during chemotherapy would often cause complications for recovering patients.

“These cells – called Haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) – are important in regenerating immune systems,” she says. “Usually when chemo is finished, a patient has nothing left to fight infection. This is because with the immune system temporarily down, patients become susceptible to bacterial infections.”

The research at the Translational Research Institute discovered how to flick a biological switch and put HSCs ‘to sleep’, waking them up again when they’re needed – after the chemotherapy ends, during the recovery process, making the recovery dramatically faster.

“Sleeping HSCs don’t get damaged by chemo,” says Dr Winkler, who is in discussions with a US biotechnology company to continue the research using human trials.

Science and Innovation Minister Ian Walker says the breakthrough could have an incredible impact on those undergoing chemotherapy.

“Every year about 25,000 Queenslanders are diagnosed with cancer and many will undergo chemotherapy,” he says. “Chemo attacks healthy cells as well as cancerous ones and many people require hospitalisation due to side-effects.”

The research’s potential will mean continued investment from the government to further drive development.

“This has the potential to dramatically improve patients’ recovery,” says Walker. “We are helping to turn great ideas into life-saving opportunities with $240,000 in funding so far, and an additional $120,000 over the next year.

“The Government’s focus on innovation and science is what transforms opportunities into results for all Queenslanders.”