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Collaborating across the lab and the clinic for better cancer outcomes

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Summer ‘23
Key Researchers
Division Head
Senior Clinical Research Fellow
Sections in this article
Prof Peter Gibbs and Prof Jeanne Tie

Professor Peter Gibbs and Professor Jeanne Tie work together in the lab and the clinic, including on a blood test for colon cancer that could mean patients avoid chemotherapy.

Jeanne

I’m a senior clinical research fellow at WEHI and a consultant medical oncologist at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

I first met Peter, current co-division head of Personalised Oncology at WEHI and medical oncologist at Western Health, in 2007. At the time, I was a trial fellow at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where he was a clinician.

Four years later, while I was working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Western Health in the colorectal clinic, I initiated clinical trials using ‘liquid biopsy’ under Peter’s mentoring.

Liquid biopsy is a blood test that can screen for tiny amounts of key proteins and gene mutations present in cancer.

It can be used to diagnose cancers before they cause any symptoms and when the chance of cure is highest.

More recently Peter and I have worked together to demonstrate the value of a liquid biopsy test taken after successful colon cancer surgery. In a clinical trial that was co-led by WEHI and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre in the US, we used this blood test to detect if patients still have any microscopic cancer left behind after surgery.

We used that result – measuring what’s known as ‘circulating tumour DNA’ – to identify patients that need chemotherapy and those that can be safely spared treatment.

The DYNAMIC study compared two groups of patients: one whose treatment was guided by the new blood test, and the other that followed our current standard, which relies solely on pathology.

The trial demonstrated that by using the blood test we reduced the number of patients needing chemotherapy by almost half, without compromising the cancer outcome. It was a collaborative effort, with 23 hospitals from across Australia enrolling 455 patients for this world-first clinical trial.

Both Peter and I have a similar vision where we like to do challenging things, identify clinical gaps and create impact in patient care. We knew that this body of work was going to take a long time, but that it was going to make a difference to people’s lives.

Peter is a great mentor and is always so positive, resilient and optimistic. His feedback and our ability to critique each other’s work in a constructive way is very helpful for growth as a researcher and clinician.

I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without the support that he’s provided and the infrastructure within the lab to support all the work.

 

Peter

It’s a partnership between Jeanne and myself, as we both have different roles.

In the beginning, I was the senior mentor assisting Jeanne. Nowadays, Jeanne has taken more of a leadership role.

We work together, come up with ideas, get the funding, and then make the trials happen. After that, we interpret the research and present the results to our colleagues locally and internationally.

Our research on circulating tumour DNA, to precisely identify the stage 2 colon cancer patients that need chemotherapy after surgery, has been incredibly successful.

This would not have been possible without our collaborators at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre, where we were able to bring unique skill sets together, such as our clinical and research expertise and their scientific expertise. It was very fruitful, and we could not have achieved our results without their generosity.

It can be challenging to balance clinical work with research, but I believe it’s very important.

Understanding what’s happening in the clinic, what the opportunities are, what the potential of a new biomarker test is – that has really been pivotal in helping us to design the most impactful clinical trials. The most powerful work is done by people with expertise in multiple domains.

We both like to look at things that are under-explored. There are areas of potential research that are not receiving the attention they deserve.

I have a particular focus on personalising cancer therapy, using blood tests, tumour tests and even scans to inform the best possible treatment option for each patient. We are currently working on a few things in this space.

There’s so much science and research for one person to do alone. Collaborations like ours are critical to moving the field forward, and are much more powerful and impactful then just one person working by themselves.

For me, my work has been about learning how to mentor and guide people. Something I have learnt is that if you identify young, talented, enthusiastic researchers and give them opportunities, they can really go a long way and create change.

Jeanne is a fantastic example of someone that’s taken the opportunity and run with it. She is very careful and thinks about what she does and has become a very successful researcher who is a clear international leader in her field.

Hopefully she will be an inspiration to others, to take a similar path and to have a similar impact.

First published on 01 December 2023
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Summer ‘23
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Senior Clinical Research Fellow
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