Peter Mac researchers have secured more than $2.8 million to advance new treatments, and support people at-risk, in the latest Victorian Cancer Agency grant allocation.

The funded projects include new ways to improve responses to CAR T-cell therapy - including making this breakthrough blood cancer treatment work in solid tumours - and possible new treatments for aggressive prostate and ovarian cancers.

A new tool, developed at Peter Mac, to improve support for people with genetic risk factors for cancer will also be tested at scale thanks to this round of VCA grants.

Funded by the Victorian Government, the VCA invests in projects that rapidly translate research into treatments and approaches that improve clinical practice and care of cancer patients.

“The VCA Fellowships are also fantastic because they support our emerging researchers at the time when they’re developing innovative research programs and launching their careers,” says Peter Mac’s Executive Director of Cancer Research Professor Ricky Johnstone.

“We thank the Victorian Government for this latest support via the VCA, and look forward to adding these exciting projects to the pipeline of high-potential research underway at Peter Mac.”

Latest VCA Fellowship recipients at Peter Mac:

Dr Eric Kusnadi - Early Career Research Fellowship - $330,000 over 3 years

Targeting cellular mechanisms that regulate the efficiency of protein synthesis to improve outcomes for men with metastatic castrate resistant prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is well managed clinically in its early stages. Unfortunately, in a significant proportion of patients, the disease will recur and eventually develop into lethal form known as "castration resistant prostate cancer". Current targeted therapies in prostate cancer have been mostly focused on inhibiting how testosterone works in the body, with limited success. Using animal models in which we implant and grow patients’ tumour samples, we will test whether the inhibition of the mechanisms by which cancer cells control how efficient they produce proteins is a viable approach to treat men with this lethal disease.

Dr Imran House - Early Career Research Fellowship - $320,340 over three years

Enhancing Immunotherapies

Immune-based therapies (immunotherapies) such as immune checkpoint blockade and CAR T cell therapy have revolutionised the treatment of several cancer types. Despite this success, there remains numerous cancer types that are refractory to these therapies and an unacceptably high number of suboptimal responses. One key factor limiting their efficacy is the inefficient movement of anti-tumour T cells into the tumour site. This research proposal details the use of highly advanced screening methodologies and genetic engineering tools to improve T cell trafficking into tumours, with the intent of the broadening the range of patients that receive clinical benefit from immunotherapies.

Dr Paul Beavis - Mid-career Research Fellowship - $594,041 over 4 years

Enhancing the efficacy of chimeric antigen receptor T cells in solid tumours

This project will further enhance the therapeutic application of a gene-engineering based immune therapy involving a patients' own immune cells. To date this form of therapy has been effective in blood cancers but not solid tumours. My research will employ novel technological and scientific methods to make these gene-engineered immune cells more effective against solid tumours. These findings have the potential to provide treatment options for multiple solid tumour types including breast, lung and ovarian cancers.

Dr Conor Kearney - Mid-career Research Fellowship - $573,436 over 4 years

Systematic Identification of Novel Immunotherapy Targets

Immunotherapy has revolutionised the treatment of cancer in recent years, however the majority of patients fail to respond or ultimately relapse. This project aims to use cutting edge technologies to identify new targets for checkpoint blockade immunotherapy and CAR T cell therapy. The ultimate aim is to boost the number of cancer patients who can gain long lasting benefit from this class of modern cancer therapies.

Dr Dane Cheasley - Mid-career Research Fellowship - $444,644 over 4 years

High throughput discovery of synergistic drug combinations for patients with low-grade serous ovarian cancer

Low-grade serous ovarian carcinomas represent about 5 per cent of all epithelial ovarian cancers diagnosed world-wide, and are largely unresponsive to standard ovarian cancer chemotherapy. Little is known about alternative treatment strategies for those diagnosed, and yet these are urgently needed. We will systematically investigate novel drug combinations with a study of the key genetic determinants of response to these combinations in a large panel of patient-derived tumour cells. This innovative project is the first of its kind, and will highlight new treatment opportunities, and create immediate clinical drug development opportunities to significantly improve patient outcomes in this understudied and poor-outcome group.

Dr Laura Forrest - Mid-career Research Fellowship - $584,000 over 4 years

Testing a genetics-specific patient screening tool to personalise cancer genetic counselling and improve patient outcomes

Genetic testing to identify an inherited predisposition to cancer is dramatically increasing to optimise cancer treatment and to define personal and family members’ cancer risks. Genetic counselling is a critical process supporting patients having genetic testing but increasing demand poses a threat to the quality of this care. Patient screening tools, such as the Genetic Psychosocial Risk Instrument, can reliably and efficiently identify patient needs. This project will test the effectiveness of this tool in improving patient outcomes and assess whether it can be implemented in genetic counselling practice. The outcome will be an integrated screening tool ensuring care quality.

For more information, or to arrange an interview with a VCA Fellowship recipient, contact the Peter Mac Communications team on 0417 123 048.