Peter Mac researchers have received over $10 million in funding from the Medical Research Future Fund.

Our researchers will use the funding across six different projects including to help develop a blood test that can detect residual melanoma after surgery; assess how small, non-heritable gene mutations can be used to predict whether people are at higher risk of developing cancer; and identify signatures of malignancy in head and neck cancers so they can be detected earlier.

We are leading four projects funded through the Genomics Health Futures scheme, and one through the Childhood Cancer Research Grant Opportunity, all of which are being administered through the Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology at the University of Melbourne.

We’re also the key collaborator of a study being led by Swinburne University of Technology funded through the Improving Diagnosis in Cancers with Low Survival Rates Grant Opportunity.

This project is a collaboration involving researchers from Swinburne, Peter Mac, Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, and is a new part of a suite of studies looking to solve cancers of unknown primary, where the primary tumour is often not known. The studies – known as SUPER  – have been running at Peter Mac for nearly 10 years.

Executive Director of Cancer Research, Professor Ricky Johnstone, says these funding successes highlight how innovative Peter Mac’s research program is.

“We’re always looking for new and better ways to detect cancer earlier, to improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments, and improve survival outcomes for people affected by cancer,” he says.

“And it’s exciting the new opportunities to do this provided by evolving genomics technologies.

“Our partnership with Swinburne and other key collaborators enhances and augments an existing Peter Mac program adding depth, expertise and critical mass.”

Below are summaries of the research projects funded:

  • Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson – Novel predictive disease modelling using liquid biopsies to improve outcomes in melanoma

Melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer and treatment can be challenging. It is critical to predict which patients can be cured by surgery alone versus those at high risk of disease spread. Many cancers including melanoma can release small fragments of their DNA into a patient’s bloodstream (circulating tumour DNA or ctDNA). This project aims to develop and validate a ctDNA-based blood test to detect residual disease after surgery to guide treatment and improve survival outcomes.

  • Professor Ian Campbell – Genetic mosaicism as a stable and robust blood DNA biomarker for precision risk assessment for cancer

To fully personalise cancer screening, we need to develop biomarkers that can be measured simply to identify those most at risk. This project will assess how analysis of small, non-inheritable gene changes (somatic mosaicism) in blood cells can be used to measure cancer risk. Our data will support development of a simple blood test to enable targeted screening of people who are at risk of future cancer development due to acquired mutations over their lifetime.

  • Dr Charbel Darido – Evaluating clinically relevant biomarkers to improve early detection and treatment of head and neck cancer

Over the last 30 years, improvements in survival rates of head and neck cancer patients have remained modest and have been hampered by the late detection of the disease. This project will sequence patient samples to identify signatures of malignancy that will be validated in unique laboratory models of the human disease. The findings will discover novel clinically relevant markers which will allow us to detect head and neck cancer earlier and lead to better treatment options for patients.

  • Dr Piers Blombery – Diagnosis, discovery and novel phenotype characterisation using multimodal genomics in patients with inherited bone marrow failure and related disorders

This project seeks to identify novel genetic causes and improve diagnosis for patients with inherited bone marrow failure. This study will provide comprehensive genetic analysis including whole genome sequencing for 350 families with these rare diseases from around Australia. Through this study we aim to identify novel causes of these diseases, improve the diagnostic rate, improve treatment and assess the real-world practicalities of providing genomic testing to all patients with this disease.

  • Professor Mark Dawson – Studying the origins, maintenance and resistance mechanisms of poor prognosis paediatric leukaemia at single cell resolution to develop novel therapeutic approaches

Therapeutic resistance is a major barrier to curative treatment of acute leukaemia in children. However, we do not understand what drives this resistance to conventional chemotherapy and novel salvage therapies including cutting-edge cancer immunotherapies. Using a novel single cell approach we have developed, we will examine the underlying biological mechanisms that drive this resistance. This information will be invaluable in developing new therapeutic approaches to overcome this resistance.

  • Professor Penelope Schofield (led by Swinburne) – Solving Unknown Primary cancER Earlier Diagnosis (SUPER-ED): A stepped wedge cluster randomised controlled trial implementing a new model of care to support earlier diagnosis

Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is a rare condition where cancer has spread, but a primary tumour evades detection. Without standardised diagnostic tests, some CUP diagnoses may be erroneous, or time to diagnosis is too long. Initiated and guided by our consumer committee, we will develop a new model of care, to be tested and implemented through our Australia-wide CUP network of healthcare services, that will reduce time to diagnosis, lead to better treatments and improve patient experiences.

Image credit: National Cancer Institute / Daniel Sone