The 13 innovative cancer research projects we chose for grants in 2019!

15 March 2019 | Cancer Council NSW

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.

Funds have been awarded to projects deemed through peer review to be of the highest scientific merit; and through consumer review to be of the most value to the community supporting Cancer Council.

Here are some brief notes on each grant recipient, hit the research title link for a more detailed breakdown of each project:

Professor David Gottlieb, The University of Sydney: Leading accessibility of a revolutionary immunotherapy in NSW

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.

Professor Christopher Ormandy, Garvan Institute of Medical Research – The Kinghorn Cancer Centre: Overcoming endocrine resistance in breast cancer

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.

Dr Debbie Watson, University of Wollongong: Preventing a major complication of blood cancer treatment – graft-versus-host disease

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 Hubert Hondermarck, University of Newcastle: Finding a better way of identifying aggressive prostate cancers

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.

Dr James Wilmott, Melanoma Institute Australia: Developing a simple test to ensure advanced melanoma patients get the right drug for their 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.

Dr Justin Wong, Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology: Understanding the mechanisms that cause acute myeloid leukaemia

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.

Dr Kenneth Micklethwaite, The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, The University of Sydney: Creating a new class of immune cells capable of recognising and attacking acute myeloid leukaemia

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.

Associate Professor Maija Kohonen-Corish, UNSW Sydney: Exploring new treatment targets for bowel cancer

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 Mark Baker, Macquarie University: The Susan and John Freeman Cancer Research Grant: Developing a new blood-based screening test for bowel cancer

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.

Professor Paul Keall, University of Sydney: Adapting radiotherapy for safer and more effective tumour control

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.

Professor Philip Hansbro, University of Newcastle: Could our gut bacteria play a role in lung cancer?

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?

Associate Professor Tao Liu, Children’s Cancer Institute Australia for Medical Research: Investigating a new targeted treatment for neuroblastoma

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.

Dr Thomas Cox, Garvan Institute of Medical Research: Developing a dual treatment approach for pancreatic cancer

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.