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$1M grant to fund ‘visionary’ research into cancer-causing genes

20 January 2015
Key Researchers
Venture Grants research team
Professor Jane Visvader, Professor Geoff
Lindeman, Dr Marco Herold and Professor Andreas
Strasser have received $1 million to uncover cancer-
causing genes.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientists have been awarded $1 million for a ‘visionary’ project to identify the key cancer-causing genes that trigger leukaemia, lymphoma and breast cancer development.

Professor Andreas Strasser, Dr Marco Herold, Professor Jane Visvader and Professor Geoff Lindeman received a Cancer Council Victoria Metcalf Venture Grant to discover the processes that drive tumour development to help identify potential new anti-cancer targets.

The $1 million grant was one of four announced by Cancer Council Victoria today at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Institute researchers Dr Marnie Blewitt and Dr Chris Burns also received funding as co-investigators in a joint project with scientists from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to develop treatments to eradicate leukaemia stem cells, which are at the root of the blood cancers including acute myeloid leukaemia.

Halting cancer development

Lead researcher Professor Strasser said the research team aimed to uncover key genes responsible for preventing cancer development.

“Our bodies have ‘tumour suppressive’ genes that prevent cells from starting on a pathway that can lead to cancer,” Professor Strasser said. “Tumours develop when tumour suppressor genes are silenced or stop functioning, allowing cells to accumulate genetic and mechanistic defects that lead to cancer. Discovering key tumour suppressive processes and the genes that control them will give us new targets for anti-cancer treatments.”

Probing cancer-causing genes

The research team will use a new ‘gene modification’ technology to search for novel tumour suppressor genes and pathways that are critical for cancer development in blood and breast cancers.

“Dr Herold was among the first in Australia to use this new gene modification technology for research on cancer and other diseases,” Professor Strasser said. “Adopting the techniques that Dr Herold has pioneered we will switch off genes that may have tumour suppressor functions to examine the effects this will have on cancer development.”

Professor Strasser and Dr Herold from the institute’s Molecular Genetic of Cancer division will examine the processes that drive blood cancers including leukaemia and lymphoma, while Professor Visvader and Professor Lindeman from the institute’s ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer division will search for the genetic triggers for breast cancer.

Targeted treatments

Different tumour suppressors offer protection from different types of cancers. Identifying novel tumour suppressors and tests that can identify when they are disabled could therefore help to ‘match’ patients with the best treatment for their particular cancer type, Professor Strasser said.

“Increasingly we are seeing a shift in how cancers are diagnosed and treated, such that the tumour is tested for defects in ‘known’ cancer-causing genes and this information is then used to match the patient with treatments that have the highest chance of success. This method of ‘personalising’ treatments has the potential to deliver true benefits for patients. Our research will help to identify more ‘known’ cancer-causing genes, making exciting new treatment options available for cancers, starting with blood and breast cancers.”

In unveiling the new projects today, Cancer Council Victoria announced the scheme would be renamed the Metcalf Venture Grants as a tribute to the late Professor Donald Metcalf. Professor Metcalf worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for more than 60 years, with funding from Cancer Council Victoria. His pioneering research in the field of blood cell development led to the discovery of colony stimulating factors (CSFs), a hormone that boosts infection-fighting white blood cells and has helped more than 20 million cancer patients recover from chemotherapy.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Mr Todd Harper said each of the ambitious projects was unlikely to receive funding under traditional funding schemes. “In order to make true research breakthroughs we have to encourage our researchers to take risks,” Mr Harper said. “Each of these projects carries a managed risk but they are also visionary, feasible and come with a potentially high reward.”

Further information:

Alan Gill
Science Communications Officer
P: +61 3 9345 2719
E: gill.a@wehi.edu.au

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