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‘Brightest cancer researchers’: WEHI teams awarded new funding grants

15 November 2022
Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
Portrait of Gemma Kelly
Laboratory Head
Cancer Council Victoria team
World-first research exploring whether COVID-19 has any impact on cancer risk is among three WEHI projects to receive funding from Cancer Council Victoria.

The WEHI research teams have been awarded funding through Cancer Council Victoria’s $1.9 million Venture Grants initiative, which aims to support the state’s brightest cancer researchers.

At a glance

  • WEHI research teams awarded three of four Cancer Council Victoria Venture Grants.
  • Researchers will investigate whether COVID-19 affects cancer risk, how to activate immune cells against tumours, and innovative ways to improve neurosurgery for brain cancer.
  • Cancer remains the leading cause of death in the state, with 1 Victorian diagnosed with cancer every 15 minutes.

COVID-19 and cancer risk

L-R: Dr Sarah Best, Associate Professor Gemma Kelly
and Associate Professor Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat 

WEHI researchers will explore if COVID-19 has any impact on cancer onset in pre-disposed individuals, in a world-first study that could bolster health policies and cancer screening protocols.

The project will explore whether the chronic inflammation and cell damage caused by COVID-19 infection can affect a person’s cancer risk, and the effectiveness of cancer treatments that rely on the immune system to fight the disease.

Some infectious diseases and inflammatory conditions, like papilloma viruses and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, are known to increase a person’s cancer risk. But there is currently no knowledge to determine whether this is the same for SARS-CoV-2.

Led by WEHI Laboratory Head, Associate Professor Gemma Kelly, the project hopes to determine within the next two years if COVID-19 impacts cancer risk for people who are predisposed to developing cancer – critical knowledge, given early intervention can often improve a cancer patient’s survival rates.

The team will use cancer models of lymphoma, lung cancer and colon cancer to assess the response when infected with COVID-19 and the impact of different anti-cancer therapies.

Project investigators: Associate Professor Gemma Kelly, Associate Professor Kate Sutherland, Associate Professor Tracy Putoczki, Professor Marco Herold, Professor Marc Pellegrini and Professor Andreas Strasser 

Improving treatments for brain cancer patients

Low-grade glioma (LGG) is the second most common form of brain cancer, diagnosed in approximately 55,000 individuals globally each year.

While primary treatment for the cancer consists of surgical intervention, 52 per cent of patients experience recurrence within five years of surgery, resulting in an average survival rate of seven years.

Recurrence often occurs because tumour cells are left behind during surgery, due to challenges distinguishing the normal brain from tumour cells at the time of surgery.

Led by Dr Sarah Best, Laboratory Head at The Brain Cancer Centre and WEHI, this project will focus on an innovative way to better distinguish between the normal brain and the tumour during surgery to reduce harm to healthy tissue.

Project investigators: Dr Sarah Best, Dr Saskia Freytag, Dr Jim Whittle (WEHI), Dr James Dimou (Royal Melbourne Hospital) and Professor Malcolm McConville (Bio21 Institute).

Tumour ‘tags’ for lung cancer

While lung cancer represents just 1 in 10 cancer diagnoses each year in Australia, it continues to be the leading cause of cancer-related death. Lung adenocarcinoma is the most frequent subtype diagnosed in Australia, accounting for 40% of all lung cancers.

Tumour cells accumulate changes that allow them to multiply in an uncontrolled manner. Yet these changes also result in the presentation of ‘tags’ on their cell surface, making them visible to the immune system as cells to be destroyed.

This project, led by WEHI and Monash University, aims to find new ways to activate the immune system against lung cancer cells, with the long-term objective of developing an ‘off-the-shelf’ cancer vaccine or antibody-based therapy.

Project investigators: Associate Professor Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat (WEHI), Professor Anthony Purcell (Monash University).

Cancer Council Victoria’s Board Chair, Associate Professor Jeremy Millar, said: “Our Venture Grants help give Victorian researchers the chance to be bold and courageous in their pursuit to find tomorrow’s lifesaving treatments and early diagnosis. We hope they will be pivotal in the next groundbreaking cancer research.”


Media enquiries 

M: +61 475 751 811
E: communications@wehi.edu.au

WEHI Authors
Laboratory Head
Portrait of Gemma Kelly
Laboratory Head
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