Peter Mac researchers are leading Victoria in the fight against cancer, thanks to seven fellowships and grants awarded by the Victorian Cancer Agency.

Researchers from Peter Mac were the recipients of half of the available 14 VCA grants, totalling almost $3.5M, announced yesterday by the acting Minister for Health Martin Foley MP.

The VCA has invested almost $188M into cancer research since its establishment in 2006.

This year Peter Mac’s funding will support a range of research projects including into prostate cancer, breast cancer, neuroendocrine tumours and blood cancers.

This includes the inaugural Victoria-USA Cancer Fellowship Exchange Program, awarded to Peter Mac’s Dr David Goode to undertake research into the development of new therapies for prostate cancer.

The Exchange Program forms part of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Victorian Government and the USA’s National Cancer Institute. As part of this award, Dr Goode will conduct part of his research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle.

In addition to this, Drs Sarah Everitt and Price Jackson were awarded Nursing and Allied Health Clinical Research Fellowships, while Drs Kara Britt, Kristin Brown and Vihandha Wickramasinghe received Mid-Career Research Fellowships and Dr Jennifer Devlin was awarded an Early Career Seed Grant.

The grants in more detail:

Dr Sarah Everitt
Nursing and Allied Health Clinical Research Fellowship
Sequential functional imaging for breast cancer – tumour characterisation, therapy optimisation and tumour response monitoring

Patients with triple negative and HER2+ (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 positive) breast cancers are currently faced with demanding treatment regimens comprising neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. These treatments are associated with significant toxicity and resource implications. We will incorporate novel imaging technologies, to study breast cancers prior to and following chemotherapy. We will assess and compare tumours on both modalities with pathological samples and provide clinicians with highly accurate functional, volumetric and spatial information and we will investigate blood markers for the prediction of metastasis.  Ultimately, these studies will facilitate individualised treatment strategies, including de-escalation of surgery and radiation therapy.

Dr Price Jackson
Nursing and Allied Health Clinical Research Fellowship
Application of modern image processing and machine learning techniques for individualised management and optimised use of targeted therapy in neuroendocrine cancer

This fellowship will focus on improving the treatment of neuroendocrine cancer with targeted radionuclide agents. We will employ machine learning approaches to identify predicting factors—either alone or in tandem—which determine likelihood of response or potential to personalise treatment to each individual. We aim to automate this process by applying modern deep learning image analysis techniques; allowing us to analyse information from several hundred patients in a manner that wasn’t previously feasible. The work will directly inform patient management and yield technical developments that can be adapted to the diagnosis and treatment of other cancer types.

Dr Kara Britt
Mid-Career Research Fellowship
Targeting inflammation to prevent breast cancer

Changes in childbearing today mean women are bearing fewer children and at older ages. This is driving an increase in breast cancer incidence as young childbearing (parity) protects against breast cancer.  Our parity studies in mice revealed an anti-inflammatory protein is highly expressed in parous protected breasts. This protein is expressed in normal breast and lost in breast cancer. We used it to predict the outcome of early stage patients and showed it was safe and effective at inhibiting breast cancer in mice. Here we will determine the best way to develop it into a breast cancer therapy.

Dr Kristin Brown
Mid-Career Research Fellowship
Targeting cell metabolism to improve the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer

Chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype of breast cancer. Unfortunately, the majority of triple-negative breast cancer patients do not respond adequately to chemotherapy and long-term prognosis for these patients is poor. We have identified a mechanism that limits the efficacy of chemotherapy for the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer. In this project, we will establish novel combination therapy strategies to improve survival outcomes for patients diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.

Dr David Goode
Mid-Career Research Fellowship incorporating the Victoria-USA Cancer Fellowship Exchange Program
Discovering new therapies for rare, highly aggressive subtypes of prostate cancer through genome profiling

There is substantial variation in how well prostate cancer patients respond to the standard therapies of androgen deprivation and chemotherapy. However, prostate cancer still treated in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ fashion. Poorly responding tumours are often enriched in particularly aggressive cell types. Tumours containing such highly malignant cells will be grown in mice, to mimic the course of patient treatment. We will use DNA sequencing to study in great molecular detail how these tumours change in response to therapy. This work will show how therapy resistance occurs, help identify resistant tumours and develop new first-line therapies for at-risk patients.

Dr Vihandha Wickramasinghe
Mid-Career Research Fellowship
Novel RNA processing based therapies in haematological malignancies

This proposal will systematically determine how messenger RNA splicing and export, two coupled steps in the gene expression pathway, are altered in haematological malignancies, identifying potential therapeutic vulnerabilities. This will enable us to develop novel RNA processing based therapies to treat patients with mutations in RNA processing factors.

Dr Jennifer Devlin
Early Career Seed Grant
Targeting dysregulated gene expression in haematological cancers with CDK9 Inhibitors

A new class of drugs called CDK inhibitors have shown promising results in the laboratory and in early clinical studies for patients with blood cancer.  However, many patients eventually get relapsed disease and therefore new treatment strategies are needed. How these drugs work in cancer cells is not completely understood and this project will use new sequencing technologies to investigate how blood cancer cells respond to drugs that target a protein called CDK9. It is expected that this study will identify strategies to enhance the effectiveness of CDK9 inhibitors and improve patient care.