Cancer Council NSW is excited to announce that over $10.6 million in new funding has been awarded to 17 outstanding cancer research projects. The grants will help fund future breakthroughs in cancer research – the awarded research teams are leading the charge towards a cancer free future by investigating new ways to treat the disease and reduce its impact.
The 2018 grants were awarded on Tuesday 27 March at Cancer Council NSW’s annual Research Awards, hosted at Westpac’s Barangaroo Tower in Sydney.
Cancer Council NSW is proud to fund eminent and internationally recognised Australian researchers from across the state.
Cancer Council NSW’s 2018 Grant recipients
Professor Jennifer Martin The University of Newcastle All cancers
Chemotherapy drugs are widely used to treat cancer. Although based on best available evidence, current chemotherapy dosing is imprecise and not personalised. This five-year project will test and validate how new available technologies could be utilised to monitor the concentration of chemotherapy in a patient’s blood in real-time across wide population groups and be made more accessible for rural and remote patients. By monitoring chemotherapy levels early in treatment, clinicians will be able to adjust doses to achieve the ideal concentration. This will lead to direct and significant benefits for patients including improved quality of life, fewer side effects and increased chance of survival.
Professor John Rasko Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Pancreatic cancer
In Australia, around 3,300 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. This devastating cancer carries one of the lowest survival rates. Professor Rasko and his team are trialling a potential new treatment for pancreatic cancer known as CAR T-cell immunotherapy. 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, and then returning them to the patient. Professor Rasko’s project is the first in Australia to test this treatment approach in a solid tumour and will build capacity and know-how in NSW to implement these world-first technologies and train the next generation of researchers in this exciting field.
Professor Elizabeth Sullivan University of Technology Sydney All cancers
Cancer diagnosed in pregnant women is on the rise as the average age at which women start having children increases. It is hard to know how best to balance treating the cancer, while at the same time minimising harm to pregnant women and their babies.
This project will be a coordinated, state-wide investigation into cancer during pregnancy. The study will recruit and follow up pregnant women newly diagnosed with cancer across NSW to examine the patterns of cancer care provided, the women’s experiences of this care and the outcomes (both for the women and their babies). The results will lead to improved quality of care and new resources that better support the health needs of women with cancer in pregnancy in Australia.
Professor Barbara Fazekas de St Groth The University of Sydney Melanoma and lung cancer
Immune therapies based on ‘checkpoint inhibitors’ have provided new hope for patients with previously incurable melanomas and lung cancers. Up to 40% of patients with advanced melanoma and over 20% of patients with advanced lung cancer can be cured with these new treatments. But they don’t work for some patients. Since they are costly and can produce life-threatening side effects, a way of predicting which patients will benefit from treatment is urgently needed.
Professor Fazekas is using technology called mass cytometry to develop a blood test that will predict which patients will respond to immune checkpoint therapy.
Associate Professor Tao Liu UNSW Sydney Neuroblastoma
Neuroblastoma is the most common type of cancer in infants, with most new cases occurring in children under the age of two. Neuroblastoma is a very complex cancer and there are many types that behave very differently. One subtype with a particularly poor prognosis is neuroblastoma caused by rearrangements in a gene called TERT that result in uncontrolled cancer growth. This project aims to work out how a particular protein called BRD4 leads to the development and growth of tumours in children with TERT-rearranged neuroblastoma and how best to target and inhibit this protein to stop cancer cell growth.
Associate Professor Jeff Holst Centenary Institute Breast cancer
Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive form of cancer that accounts for around 15% of breast cancer cases. There are no treatments that specifically target this form of the disease and survival rates are lower than for other breast cancer types.
Unlike healthy cells, TNBC cells use a substance called glutamine for energy. The cancer cells have an unusually large number of nutrient ‘pumps’ on their surface, allowing them to take up a lot of glutamine and outgrow normal cells. Professor Holst’s team has developed a new drug that blocks these pumps and ‘starves’ the cancer cells because they can’t access glutamine.
Dr Umaimainthan Palendira Centenary Institute Melanoma
Immunotherapy is treatment that helps the body’s immune system fight cancer. It is effective in many cancer types, but more than half of patients who are treated don’t respond. This not only delays alternative treatment for those patients but since the treatments are costly, it also drains healthcare budgets.
It’s thought immunotherapy works by ‘releasing the brakes’ that stop the immune system attacking and killing cancer cells. Dr Palendira’s team are targeting cells known as Tumour-resident Immune (TRI) cells as a key to this process. Their project will fully characterise TRI cells to work out what is special about them, how they might be controlled, and how they might be used to predict who will respond to immunotherapy.
Dr David Gallego Ortega Garvan Institute of Medical Research Breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. While there has been good progress in developing breast cancer therapies, there are still very limited treatment options for around a third of women with the disease. One approach that holds promise is immunotherapy – using the body’s own immune response to fight the cancer.
Dr Gallego Ortega’s team have already uncovered some key steps in the process and developed a promising prototype immunotherapy. This treatment is able to boost the immune system to elicit the rejection of cancer cells.
Professor David Gottlieb The University of Sydney All cancers
Fungal infections that invade the body occur in up to 10% of cancer patients who have had a blood stem cell transplant. Even with treatment, these fungal infections often kill because the body’s immune system is weak for up to 12 months after a transplant.
Professor David Gottlieb project focuses on boosting immunity to fungal infections by generating immune cells called lymphocytes that are able to specifically fight a range of relevant yeast and mould infections. This clinical trial is the first of its type ever performed in humans to treat invasive fungal disease.
Professor Peter Hersey Centenary Institute Melanoma
A leading treatment for melanoma is immunotherapy, which involves helping the body fight the cancer itself by targeting molecules called ‘immune checkpoints’ on immune cells. But approximately 40 to 60% of patients relapse after two years of this type of drug treatment and the reason for this is not known.
Professor Peter Hersey’s project is focused on overcoming the problem of relapse of melanoma in patients being treated by immunotherapy with checkpoint inhibitors. It will examine whether the relapse is associated with a change in immune cells referred to as T cell exhaustion and where this change can be reversed by treatment with certain drugs.
Dr Ruth Pidsley Garvan Institute of Medical Research Prostate cancer
Prostate cancer affects one in five Australian men, and is particularly common in men over 65. Therapies that target the entire prostate gland are current best practice. However, these therapies can cause side effects including reduced urinary and sexual function. Focal therapy is a new, minimally invasive approach which aims to leave the healthy tissue surrounding a tumour intact and so minimise side effects.
Dr Ruth Pidsley project focuses on ways to better assess the extent of prostate tumours and so improve the selection of men who would benefit from focal therapy. The work is based on assessing chemical alterations known as epigenetic changes that differ between cells in the tumour and tumour microenvironment compared to cells in normal tissue.
Over 1600 women are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Australia in 2018 and only around 44% survive for five years or longer. Unlike many other cancer types, ovarian cancer has few targeted treatments based on the specific changes that have occurred in a woman’s tumour. Professor Ramus and her team will analyse tumours from 3700 women and group the patients whose tumour cells show similar changes.
This study is five times bigger than any other ovarian cancer study of this type in the world. This scale of analysis is important to account for all the differences that exist. The team will find the changes that are most important in the tumours and develop new clinical tests that will allow testing for subtypes. This would give patients and their doctors more information about their particular form of the disease and help with decisions on treatment.
Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer. The cells in melanoma tumours often have high levels of proteins called BET that turn on genes that help cells grow and become cancerous. New drugs can inhibit the BET proteins and kill some melanomas but little is known about which patients could benefit most from the drugs.
This project will test different BET inhibitors on a panel of 55 melanoma cell types. Dr Tiffen and her team aim to show which melanoma patients will benefit the most from BET inhibitors and how these new drugs can be used to improve other treatments.
Professor Roger Reddel Children’s Medical Research Institute All cancers
Professor Reddel and his colleagues have commenced a major new research program called ProCan, to analyse and measure thousands of proteins simultaneously in cancers, and use advanced computational techniques to learn how to predict the most effective treatments for individual cancers. To make this ground-breaking bank of information accessible to other researchers and clinicians, the ProCan team needs to build a highly sophisticated online database. With this funding from Cancer Council NSW, Professor Reddel and his team will now be able to create an online platform to handle the vast amounts of data produced by ProCan, and enable it to be shared for research and clinical purposes.
Family carers play a critical role in cancer patient care. Patients supported by family carers have better psychological and physical outcomes including survival. However, virtually no training has been developed to involve and support carers in consultations and care.
Associate Professor Ilona Juraskova project aims to develop and evaluate two online training interventions: one aimed at cancer doctors and nurses and a second aimed at patients and carers.
Dr Marina Pajic Garvan Institute of Medical Research Pancreatic cancer
In Australia, only 7% of people with pancreatic cancer will survive for five years or longer. A key reason for the poor prognosis is that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach that works because there are many subtypes of the cancer. This project focuses on work showing there are subtypes of pancreatic cancer that share a reliance on a newly-discovered molecular pathway. Some preliminary research suggests these cancers may be sensitive to a new chemotherapy drug combination. Dr Pajic and her team will try to find ways to test if a particular cancer falls into the group that might respond to the drug combination, and if so, how it works in those cancers.