Melbourne scientists are embarking on a comprehensive investigation of how cancerous tumours change their make-up over time, and when spreading to other sites in the body.

The ACRF Tumour Heterogeneity Program - a pipeline of research involving scientists at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and University of Melbourne - is funded via a $2 million grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF).

The research is expected to yield powerful new insights into what drives these changes within a tumour, and help to explain why secondary or metastatic tumours are more difficult to treat. It is expected to reveal potential new therapeutic targets or pathways to control the spread of cancer, and support the development of new or improved drugs and diagnostic tools.

 “We know from studies which compare samples of a patient’s tumour at diagnosis to their late-stage disease that a cancer can undergo dramatic changes in its make-up over time,” says Peter Mac’s Associate Professor Sarah Jane Dawson, who is leading the research.

“This shows us we should not think of cancer as being static, or uniform, but an evolving disease which will adapt in response to treatment and to become established in other sites in the body.

“Current limitations in our understanding of tumour heterogeneity is one the greatest barriers to improving cancer outcomes today, and this broad program of research will characterise these changes across many different cancer types.”

The Program will build upon a ground-breaking study which has operated at Peter Mac since 2013. The CASCADE Rapid Autopsy Program – in which Victorian cancer patients can opt into receiving an autopsy and tissue collection within 24 hours of their death – is providing scientists with the samples they need to advance understanding of how tumours change over time.

The ACRF funding has allowed the acquisition of new technology across the fields of genomics, microscopy, flow cytometry and preclinical imaging that will allow deeper analysis of these tumour samples, and aligned research.

The Program will characterise the heterogeneity of many different cancer types at both the cellular and molecular levels. The findings are expected to be widely applied, and should play a major role in developing the next-generation of targeted therapies.

“Cancers are constantly adapting and shape shifting – just one cell mutation can, over time, dictate whether a patient’s cancer will recur and resist the same drugs that previously may have knocked it out,” says Professor Sean Grimmond, the founding chair of the University of Melbourne Cancer Research Centre and Bertalli Chair in Cancer Medicine.

“These tools will help us understand the genetics underlying what goes wrong in advanced cancers and those that evade standard treatments.”

Associate Professor Tony Papenfuss, Head of the Centre for Computational Biology at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, says the Program was about “extending what’s possible in the Parkville precinct and our ability to tackle the big questions in cancer”.

“This collaboration will generate fascinating new insights into how cancers evolve and change, leading eventually to improved outcomes for patients,” Associate Professor Papenfuss says.

Professor Ian Brown, from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, says ACRF is dedicated to funding research in Australia that has the power to make significant breakthroughs in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“The ACRF Tumour Heterogeneity Program exemplifies the innovative thinking that justifies the type of state-of-the-art technology provided by ACRF and the ongoing investment by the foundation in the pursuit of ways to prevent or more effectively treat cancer”.