Peter Mac researchers have been awarded over $10 million dollars in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council to undertake world-leading cancer research.

Ten research projects administered through the Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology at the University of Melbourne were funded through the latest NHMRC Ideas Grants round, at a success rate of over one in five - nearly double the national success rate of 11%.

A further two grants were awarded to Peter Mac researchers affiliated with Monash University, with a third being transferred to Peter Mac from another institute, bringing our total to thirteen.

The Ideas Grants support innovative and creative scientific research that are likely to have significant impacts on the health of Australians.

Peter Mac’s funded projects include research into breast cancer prevention and new treatments, therapy resistance in leukemia, regulation of cancer immunity and immunotherapy and understanding rare cancers including high grade ovarian and oesophageal cancers.

Peter Mac’s Executive Director of Research, Prof Ricky Johnstone, says that Peter Mac’s outstanding grants success is a reflection of the high quality, innovative and significant research done every day at Peter Mac.

“Right now, competition for government funding is extremely fierce. To almost double the national success rate in this current NHMRC round is a testament to the exceptional research being done at Peter Mac, and to the scientists dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by cancer,” he says.

The following Ideas Grants were award to Peter Mac researchers:

Doctor Kara Britt - A new way to deliver breast cancer prevention.

The rising breast cancer incidence is driven by changes in our reproductive behaviours compared to 50-100 years ago (fewer children, later in life and use of hormone therapies), which all increase risk. We found a certain cell within the breast is lost with pregnancy and existing preventatives (ovaries surgically removed, or anti-estrogen therapy). We will find new ways to lower these cells to protect against cancer without the need for surgery or having to suffer side effects (anti-estrogens).

Doctor Yih-Chih Chan -  Understanding genetic and non-genetic resistance to therapeutic pressure in acute myeloid leukaemia.

Resistance to cancer therapy is often thought to be due to mutations in essential genes (genetic changes). However, resistance can also arise from the expression of genes without detectable mutations (non-genetic changes). Therefore, it is critical to understand how these genetic and nongenetic changes contribute to therapy resistance in cancer. We will address this question in a unique set of patient samples with the aim of identifying future strategies to prevent this form of resistance.

Doctor Louise Cheng - Identification of novel mediators of cachexia in Drosophila.

Cachexia is a metabolic disorder that affects some 9 million people worldwide, and involves extreme weight- and muscle-loss. It is a disease driven by metabolic imbalance between tumours, muscle and fat. Here we use fruit flies to find out how specific mutations can drive cachexia, what factors are mediating the communication between tumour and other tissues, and watch cachexia occur in real time. For the first time, we can study how tumours and organs communicate.

Doctor Nicholas Clemons - Establishing functional drivers and novel therapeutic targets in oesophageal adenocarcinoma.

Survival from oesophageal cancer is low and current treatments are largely ineffective. Efforts to develop new therapies are hampered by a lack of understanding of what causes the cancer to develop at the molecular genetic level. This project will address this important issue by exploiting new genetic knowledge of the disease to comprehensively characterise the important molecular causes of oesophageal cancer and identify new targets for therapy.

Professor Mark Dawson - Investigating the role of CMTM6 in regulating anti-tumour immunity.

This project will aim to characterise a newly discovered protein called CMTM6 which plays a major role in regulating anti-cancer surveillance by the immune system. The application aims to develop new biomarkers for stratifying patients to immunotherapies and deliver novel insights that will advance new immunotherapies to combat a range of cancers.                   

Doctor Dale Garsed - Understanding adverse and exceptional outcomes in high-grade serous ovarian cancer.

Most women with high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSC) die within five years of diagnosis, as tumours often develop chemotherapy resistance. However some patients have dramatic responses to chemotherapy and survive long-term. We will examine unique cohorts of Australian women with HGSC and analyse their tumour samples to uncover mechanisms underlying unexpected clinical responses, and use cell models to understand how genetic vulnerabilities can be exploited in the treatment of HGSC.

Doctor Lev Kats - RNA methylation in normal and malignant blood development.

Sequencing studies that have compared the genomes and epigenomes of normal and malignant cells have revolutionised our understanding of cancer and have led to the development of new therapeutic strategies. Herein, we propose to study how the RNA modification m6A is regulated during physiological blood development and dysregulated in leukaemia.

Doctor  Ewa Michalak - Exploiting RNA export as a novel treatment strategy for cancer.

The purpose of this project is to understand a new type of drug called dBET and its effects on breast cancer. We have recently made the exciting observation that this drug works in a way that was not previously appreciated, that may explain why the drug dBET is effective in killing tumor cells. We believe that this new function can be exploited to treat breast cancers, including the “triple-negative” subtype that has particularly bad prognosis, partly due to lack of treatment options.

Doctor Florian Wiede - Targeting PTP1B to improve adoptive T cell immunotherapy.     

T cells, a subset of specialised white blood cells, play an important role in the clearance of tumours. However, tumours develop complex inhibitory mechanisms, which effectively ‘silence’ T cells and the success of therapies to enhance anti-tumour T cell responses is limited. This proposal will investigate whether the inhibition of an enzyme called PTP1B might enhance T cell responses to help the immune system combating cancer.           

Professor Marc Achen - A novel therapeutic strategy for lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is a common chronic disease which, in Australia, predominantly occurs in women. There are no effective preventative strategies for lymphoedema, current treatments are of limited benefit and there are no drug-based therapeutics for the condition. This project will validate a new way of treating lymphoedema based on drugs that target key molecular signalling mechanisms in this disease. This approach will also be tested for its capacity to prevent lymphoedema.

Associate Professor Alicia Oshlack - Advancing the analysis of single cell transcriptomics to facilitate biomedical research.

Recently it has become possible to investigate the activity of thousands of individual cells simultaneously using single cell sequencing. One large international project focusing on the use of this technology is the Human Cell Atlas which aims to characterise and create a comprehensive reference map of all cell types in the human body. This grant application aims to develop methods that will deepen our fundamental understanding of the cellular processes that lead to disease.

Professor Gail Risbridger – Targeting Lethal Prostate Cancer in its infancy.

There are two types of prostate cancer. The first requires hormones to grow and responds well to hormone therapy. The second type doesn’t respond to hormone therapy and is very aggressive. Additionally, there are tumours with a mixture of the two types. Current diagnostic practices fail to detect which patients have mixed tumours, resulting in ineffective treatment. This grant will address this problem by identifying better detection and treatment strategies for mixed tumours.

Professor Tony Tiganis – Next Generation Cell Therapies for Cancer.

Immune-based therapies are revolutionising the treatment of previously intractable cancers. In particular, therapies using chimeric antigen
receptor (CAR) T cells have yielded unprecedented clinical responses in patients with B cell leukemia. However, the majority of cancers, in
particular solid tumours, fail to respond to CAR T cell therapy. This proposal will take advantage of cutting-edge preclinical tumour models and
innovative approaches to enhance CAR cell therapies in cancer.