University of Sydney researchers win $2m to defeat cancer

2 March 2017

The University of Sydney has won a third of the funding awarded to researchers by the NSW Cancer Council

Six University of Sydney-affiliated scholars have won $2m from $6m in new grants announced today by Cancer Council NSW to make ground-breaking advancements in cancer research.

Cancer Council NSW awarded 15 projects to support promising new ways to arrest and defeat cancers, including personalised medicine that exploits advances in immunotherapy and gene-based therapies.

Dr Ken Micklethwaite of the University of Sydney and Westmead Institute was awarded $450,000 to test the impacts of genetically modified immune cells to fight cases of leukaemia, which is currently incurable. Dr Micklethwaite’s research centres on the use of a new “PiggyBac” technology to make cell and gene therapy simpler and more broadly available.

Currently, the technology for making cancer-fighting immune cells is unable to introduce the genes needed to defeat cancer. The PiggyBac system has the ability to make these changes but is yet to be adapted for clinical use. Dr Micklethwaite’s team will optimise PiggyBac for use in clinical trials and develop the technology so researchers have a choice of established tools that can be used to create cancer-fighting cells.

Associate Professor Greg Neely was awarded $450,000 to progress research on the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Only six per cent of patients survive pancreatic cancer for five years or more after diagnosis. It is often treated with gemcitabine, a chemotherapy drug commonly prescribed to treat pancreatic cancer, however gemcitabine resistance in pancreatic cancer is common and can occur quickly.

Professor Neely’s research team hopes to detect molecular “signatures” that define drug resistance and thereby allow researchers to find ways to make current and future treatments more effective. The research will be used to test combinations of drugs to either overcome cancer drug resistance or prevent resistance from occurring.

Other researchers funded by Cancer Council NSW include:

Dr Elizabeth Hovey ($186,540):

  • Dr Hovey, who is Honoray Associate, NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, Sydney Medical School, will test an alternative treatment for a type of glioma brain cancer, which could be less toxic and more effective than current therapy. Oligodendroglioma is a type of glioma brain tumour which is generally treated by a combination of chemotherapy drugs (PCV treatment). Dr Hovey’s work will investigate whether PCV treatment could be substituted by the less toxic drug temozolomide to treat this cancer.

Dr Eva Segelov ($213,460):

  • Dr Segelov who is Honoray Associate, NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, Sydney Medical School and a Medical Oncologist at St Vincent’s Hospital will conduct a multinational trial on colorectal cancer to determine whether aspiring can be used to reduce relapse and death rates. Previous research has shown that patients with colon and rectal cancer who take aspirin after being diagnosed appear to live longer than those who do not. The trial will aim to determine whether taking aspirin will improve survival rates without adding significant side-effects.

Associate Professor Jeffrey Holst ($449,174):

  • Conjoint Associate Professor Holst, Sydney Medical School and The Centenary Institute will complete research into manipulating cancer cells into using biological pathways that will trigger their own death. Cancer cells develop stress-response techniques to promote their survival and so researchers will hijack these responses and force the cancer cells to choose a path that will lead to their death.

Professor Stephen Ackland ($449,490):

  • Professor Ackland who is affiliated with the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre at the University of Sydney will complete a phase two trial testing whether statins, a drug that treats high cholesterol, can reduce the side-effects of rectal cancer treatments. Previous studies have shown that people taking statin drugs before treatment for colorectal cancers have better treatment responses and fewer side effects during radiation.

Research Grants Manager at Cancer Council NSW, Dr Jane Hobson said the teams that have been awarded funding are leaders in their fields and can have a major impact on cancer treatment in the future.

“Many of the research teams we have funded this year are world leaders in their domain, and are positioned to rapidly translate their findings into practice. We look forward to seeing the results of this vital research,” she said.

“One key theme that runs through the grants is innovative strategies to enable cells to fight back against cancer. For example, enabling the immune system to help it attack cancerous cells has become an increasingly significant area of cancer research.”

Both Dr Ken Micklethwaite and Associate Professor Greg Neely are available for interview

Elliott Richardson

Assistant Media Advisor (Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy)
One key theme that runs through the grants is innovative strategies to enable cells to fight back against cancer.
Dr Jane Hobson, Research Grants Manager at Cancer Council NSW

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