Cancer is a major cause of death, accounting for 30 per cent of all deaths annually in Australia. One in three men and one in four women will have been diagnosed with cancer in the first 75 years of life (this increases to one in two males and one in three females by 85 years of age). This trend is expected to continue mainly due to Australia’s ageing population.
The translation of discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic will assist with the development of better treatments for cancer patients, and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has clinical research programs focused on breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and blood cancer including leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Professor Geoff Lindeman, Professor Jane Visvader and the team from the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer division are engaged in basic, translational and clinical breast cancer research, with the long-term goal to identify and exploit novel cancer targets to improve patient outcomes. Their research, which covers both sporadic and hereditary forms of breast cancer, is focused on elucidating the breast epithelial cell hierarchy, in order to identify key regulators responsible for breast epithelial cell proliferation, differentiation and cancer. Their efforts are now turned towards discovering stem and progenitor cells in human breast tissue and to understand whether they are directly linked to the development of BRCA1- and BRCA2-associated breast cancers.
In the fight against blood cancers, Professor Andrew Roberts and Professor David Huang and their team, including Dr Kylie Mason and Dr Seong Lin Khaw, from the Cancer and Haematology division and ACRF Chemical Biology division, are studying a new class of anti-cancer drugs called the BH3-mimetics that induce cancer cell death. Dr Mason’s research has shown that adding a BH3-mimetic to standard chemotherapy can help eradicate a blood cancer in mice that is similar to Burkitt’s lymphoma in humans. A similar drug is now undergoing Phase I/IIa clinical trials in patients with leukaemia at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and at hospitals in the US and Europe. By studying samples from the patients participating in these trials, the impact of treatment on drug sensitivity and disease biology, and the identification of potential biomarkers that may be used to guide the clinical use of the drugs can be determined.
Associate Professor Clare Scott from the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer division is currently involved in the ongoing development of a new chemotherapy treatment, PARP inhibitor therapy, in BRCA1/2 ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Phase I clinical trials of this treatment have shown total clinical benefit, leading to two international phase II clinical trials that are now underway.
Other clinical cancer research
Professor Andreas Strasser, Associate Professor Clare Scott and their research teams in the Molecular Genetics of Cancer division and the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer division have used mouse models of cancer to unravel which genes are essential for the killing activity of the most commonly used chemotherapy drugs, such as cyclophosphamide and etoposide, in human cancers. Used in combination with a BH3-mimetic, lower doses of the drugs are required with minimal toxicity observed. This will help to identify and overcome resistance to these important treatments in human tumours.
Each of these programs has tight links with other key researchers at the institute within the ACRF Chemical Biology, ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer,Cancer and Haematology, Molecular Genetics of Cancer, Molecular Medicine, Bioinformatics and Immunology divisions. All cancer research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is highly collaborative and focuses on translation between the clinic and the laboratory.