Last night, almost $9 million of new funding was awarded to 13 ground-breaking cancer research projects at the 2019 Cancer Council NSW Research Awards. The chosen world-class research teams are leading the charge towards a cancer free future by investigating new ways to diagnose and treat the disease.
CAR T-cell immunotherapy is one of the most exciting cancer therapies to emerge in recent years. This type of treatment involves taking a patient’s own immune cells, growing them in a highly specialised clinical laboratory, reprogramming them to attack only cancer cells or infections, and then returning them to the patient. Up until now, CAR T-cell production in Australia has been on a small scale for use in specific clinical trials. Professor Gottlieb and his team will develop methods for upscaling CAR T-cell production in NSW – accelerating the introduction of this cutting-edge therapy in NSW and making treatment more affordable.
Following surgical removal of ER+ breast cancer, patients are often treated with hormone therapy to block the effects of estrogen on any remaining cancer and reducing the risk of recurrence. If there is a recurrence (which can happen as long as twenty years after initial treatment) the cancer often appears in a distant site like a bone or brain where it has become resistant to hormone therapy. Based on the finding that ELF5 levels rise during hormone therapy, the research team aims to establish a prognostic test to determine which patients will become resistant to hormone therapy and whether additional chemotherapy would be beneficial.
Graft-versus-host disease is a debilitating and painful disease that attacks the organs, including the liver, skin and gut. It occurs in around half of people who receive a donor stem cell transplant and can cause organ damage and failure, and in some cases can cause death. Dr Debbie Watson will develop a potential new treatment strategy using manipulated stem cell transplantation combined with drugs that block development of graft-versus-host disease.
Professor Hondermarck and his team have discovered that a nerve growth factor (proteins that stimulate the growth of nerves) is overproduced in prostate cancer cells and its presence in the blood is increased in patients with prostate cancer. They’ve also found that this growth factor (called proNGF) is better at identifying prostate cancer from benign prostate growth. In light of these exciting findings, Professor Hondermarck and his team aim to show that proNGF and SN are effective biomarkers for prostate cancer and, crucially, represent a more accurate way of testing for the disease.
Once melanoma has spread, the most effective treatment is immunotherapy. These immunotherapies release the brakes on the immune system to attack tumour cells. However, more than 40% of metastatic melanoma patients are not cured with these therapies, more for the other cancers. The research team hopes to verify their test can accurately identify patients who will respond to standard immunotherapies, and the patients for who should be offered alternative treatment options.
Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a blood cancer that develops when the body makes too many immature white blood cells known as myeloid blast cells or myeloblasts. Chemotherapy is the main treatment for AML and while it is effective for some patients, many patients will suffer relapse and treatment-resistance. Dr Wong’s research is focused on the chemical changes in DNA and RNA that are associated with acute myeloid leukaemia. He hopes to uncover previously unknown protein abnormalities that cause these chemical changes and identify the genes that are affected.
One of the latest types of immunotherapy to emerge is CAR T-cell immunotherapy. However, in acute myeloid leukaemia, one of the most common and aggressive forms of the disease, CAR T-cells can’t identify the cancer cells amongst the healthy cells. Dr Micklethwaite and his team aim to create a new class of CAR T-cells that are capable of recognising and attacking acute myeloid leukaemia cells with a high degree of accuracy.
This research team has discovered that the lack of a certain protein, called MCC (‘mutated in colorectal cancer’), causes a disruption in the function of other key proteins in the colon and this promotes the development of an invasive type of colorectal cancer. The research will test possible therapies in MCC-altered bowel cancer by exploiting the tumour’s vulnerability caused by DNA damage.
Professor Baker and his team aim to develop a new test to detect bowel cancer in its early stages – a test that is more accurate and is as simple as going for a blood test. Once refined and validated, the team will benchmark the blood test against the FOBT and other current clinical practice tests to determine which method is the most effective as an early stage bowel cancer screening test.
External beam radiotherapy uses a radiation machine to direct radiation beams at the cancer. Given that our bodies are always moving, even while we lay completely still, standard radiotherapy treatments use a larger radiation beam than is needed to treat the whole tumour. This approach results in healthy tissue also being exposed to radiation. In this project, Professor Keall and his team at the University of Sydney and the Royal North Shore Hospital will take adaptive radiotherapy to the next level, enhancing the system to target and move with multiple tumours, aiming to improve tumour control, while reducing unwanted side effects.
This project is exploring the impact of gut bacteria on lung cancer development. Professor Hansbro and his team have been studying the role of gut bacteria in chronic lung diseases including emphysema. They’ve been able to show that manipulating gut bacteria can help to manage lung disease, highlighting a link between the gut and lung health. Could gut bacteria also play a role in lung cancer?
Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour in early childhood. One subtype with a particularly poor prognosis is neuroblastoma caused by rearrangements in a gene called TERT that result in uncontrolled cancer growth. Professor Liu and his team are investigating how particular proteins affect the development and growth of tumours in children with TERT-rearranged neuroblastoma.
Pancreatic cancer tumours feature high levels of connective tissue which provide cancer cells with protection from chemotherapy and other treatments. Dr Cox and his team are developing a way to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer by teaming it with another treatment that targets the production of this protective tissue in the tumour.