Six Victorian Cancer Agency Research Fellowships have been awarded to Peter Mac early- and mid-career scientists, supporting research into key areas including the development of predictive biomarkers for therapy response and resistance, new cancer treatments and the integration of exercise into cancer care.

The prestigious VCA Fellowships are awarded to high quality cancer researchers in the early- and mid-stages of their careers, whose research demonstrates clear capacity for clinical translation.

“We are proud of our up-and-coming early and mid-career researchers, and welcome VCA’s acknowledgement of these six exceptional and deserving Fellowship recipients,” says Prof Ricky Johnstone, Executive Director of Research at Peter Mac.

“We are also excited at the diversity of research that has been supported through this scheme, reflecting the strength of Peter Mac’s comprehensive approach to cancer research.”

With the support of these Fellowships, Dr Omer Gilan and Dr Elaine Sanij will focus on the development of innovative approaches to cancer therapy.

Dr Gilan will investigate ways to enhance the effectiveness of BET-inhibitors as anti-cancer therapies by understanding the precise way that BET proteins work in promoting cancer.

Dr Sanij’s research will explore whether combining a new class of anti-cancer drug that targets ribosomes with other therapies is effective for the treatment of ovarian cancers that have become resistant to conventional approaches.

A/Prof Prue Cormie will study the important role of exercise in enhancing the health and wellbeing of people with cancer, leading to improvements both to the way that health professionals recommend exercise, and how these recommendations are received and acted upon by their patients.

Dr Dineika Chandrananda, Dr Stephen Wong and Dr Aparna Rao will each focus on the discovery of new biomarkers that can predict tumour behaviours, therapy response and resistance of tumours to various cancer treatments.

Dr Chandrananda’s research aims to develop a simple blood test that can predict the progression and emergence of therapy-resistance in breast cancers, informing new personalised therapeutic approaches.

Dr Wong will also investigate whether a blood test can be used in people with metastatic melanoma to predict whether an individual’s cancer is likely to respond to immunotherapy, and reveal if a cancer is becoming resistant during treatment to help inform better clinical decision making.

Also focused on melanoma, Dr Rao will study melanoma metabolism and how these cancers use and produce energy to help them grow and become resistant to therapies, improving diagnosis and treatment approaches.

Dr Rao was also selected by VCA as a participant in the Victorian-USA Fellowship Exchange Program to enable her to undertake part of her research with world-leading cancer metabolism experts at the Children’s Medical Research Center at the University of Texas Southwestern in the United States.

You can read more about the VCA-supported research here:

Dineika Chandrananda - Early Career Research Fellowship

Real-time in vivo transcriptome profiling using circulating tumour DNA to predict response and resistance to cancer therapies

Tumours can shed small amounts of DNA into the patient’s bloodstream. Thus, a simple blood test presents a window to study the cancer and provides a ‘liquid biopsy’ alternative too often painful or impractical tissue biopsies. Each patient’s circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) has the potential to be used as a personalised biomarker in managing their cancer. This research project will utilise ctDNA to study how breast cancers evolve when they progress and become resistant to treatment. This  knowledge is expected to inform new strategies to improve current therapies and help individualise treatment decisions for breast cancer patients.

Aparna Rao - Early Career Research Fellowship

Identifying metabolic biomarkers and novel therapies in melanoma

Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma globally. Although targeted and immunotherapies have dramatically improved outcomes, we still do not fully understand

why some patients relapse after surgery or why some melanomas do not respond to therapies. Understanding the fuels that tumours use to derive energy (metabolism) could potentially answer these questions. This project uses novel techniques to directly assess metabolism in mice and patients with melanoma. For the first time, we will comprehensively characterise melanoma metabolism in living tumours and ultimately aim to use this knowledge to improve diagnosis, predict outcomes and develop novel therapies for patients with melanoma.

Prue Cormie - Mid Career Research Fellowship

Embedding exercise into routine cancer care: Developing tools and strategies to support exercise advice by the cancer care team and exercise participation by cancer patients

If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be viewed as a breakthrough in cancer care and prescribed to every cancer patient. Unfortunately, patients can’t ‘take’ an exercise pill, they have to actively ‘do’ exercise to reduce the number and severity of cancer-related side-effects. Despite the potent effects exercise medicine can have in cancer care, 90% of patients don’t engage in evidence-based exercise. This project will evaluate how to most effectively assist cancer patients access exercise and develop pragmatic tools/strategies to help: 1) health professionals prescribe exercise medicine; and 2) cancer patients take exercise medicine.

Omer Gilan - Mid Career Research Fellowship

Development and characterisation of next generation BET inhibitors

The last decade has seen widespread enthusiasm around the development of novel epigenetic therapies for the treatment of many diseases, including cancer. BET-bromodomain inhibitors are amongst the most exciting, with remarkable pre-clinical efficacy paving the way for clinical trials. Unfortunately, while some patients are displaying a partial or complete response, the overall response rate has been disappointingly low. This is likely due to an incomplete understanding of the biological and tumorigenic role of the individual bromodomains and/or BET family members. Unravelling their distinct functions using both cutting edge pharmacological and genetic tools will drive improvements of these exciting new therapies

Elaine Sanij - Mid Career Research Fellowship

A multiple modality approach for targeting chemotherapy- and PARPi-resistant ovarian cancer

More than 1000 Australian women die of therapy-resistant ovarian cancer (OvCa) every year. My research is testing new approaches that we have pioneered to selectively damage the DNA of cancer cells to target ovarian cancer. A cornerstone of our approach is CX-5461, a new anti-cancer drug that we have developed and shown to work in drug-resistant blood cancers. We believe CX-5461 will be effective and less toxic than chemotherapy. This project aims to design new drug combinations with CX-5461 to enhance the therapy, prevent cancer relapse and provide much needed effective treatments for ovarian cancer patients.

Stephen Wong - Mid Career Research Fellowship

Novel blood-based biomarkers to guide immunotherapy management in early stage melanoma

Melanoma is the cause of most skin cancer deaths in Australia. While immunotherapy has revolutionised the treatment of melanoma, many patients experience profound toxicities to treatment. There is a critical need to better select patients likely to benefit from immunotherapy and predict responses from treatment for melanoma patients. We aim to develop accessible, minimally-invasive blood-based approaches to effectively guide the management of immunotherapy in melanoma patients. Our results will lead to better treatment options and improved outcomes for melanoma patients.