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Eureka win for researchers behind new anti-cancer strategy 

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Summer ‘23
Key Researchers
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Profile photo of Anne Voss
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L-R Tim Thomas and Anne Voss standing in a laboratory.

WEHI researchers Associate Professor Tim Thomas and Professor Anne Voss have won the 2023 UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for their pioneering work on a novel approach to cancer treatment.

The prize recognises their groundbreaking research in developing a new class of drugs that can put cancer cells ‘to sleep’ without triggering the harmful side effects caused by conventional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are among Australia’s most distinguished science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.

At a glance
Associate Professor Tim Thomas and Professor Anne Voss awarded the 2023 UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.
The pair identified a novel approach to cancer treatment that can put cancer cells ‘to sleep’, without the harmful side effects caused by conventional therapies. 
The Eureka Prize for Scientific Research is awarded for outstanding curiosity-driven scientific research.

Breakthrough treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation are two common treatments used to destroy or stop the growth of cancer cells, to prevent tumours from spreading.

But these treatments can also affect healthy cells and damage the cells’ DNA, leading to debilitating side effects, including nausea, fatigue and hair loss.

The new class of drugs developed by Assoc Prof Thomas and Prof Voss have an unprecedented ability to stop cancer cells from reproducing and spreading – without damaging the cells’ DNA.

Prof Voss, Joint-Head of WEHI’s Epigenetics and Development Division, said the pair was honoured and humbled to be Eureka Prize recipients.

“This win is a testament to the collaborative power and the unwavering commitment of so many colleagues that has underpinned our work towards findings better treatments for a disease that still impacts millions of people worldwide,” she said.

 

“This win is a testament to the collaborative power and the unwavering commitment of so many colleagues that has underpinned our work towards findings better treatments for a disease that still impacts millions of people worldwide.’
Professor Anne Voss

“The best anti-cancer treatments currently available to patients can still impact their quality of life.

“This new class of drug compounds stop cancer cells from dividing and proliferating by switching off their ability to continue the cell cycle. This stops the cancer cells in their track, preventing them from spreading.

“Crucially, in arresting tumour growth, the new compounds do not damage the cells’ DNA, which is a critical difference between this new class of compounds and standard cancer therapies.”

The research, spanning over a decade, involves a collaboration with the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) and the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx).

Critical findings

The researchers, who have worked together for more than 30 years, made the crucial discovery of the key functions of the MYST family of proteins and how they can be used towards anti-cancer therapies.

MYST proteins play a critical role in controlling the activity of our genes, which ensure our bodies work correctly.

When these proteins malfunction, there can be harmful consequences to our body – including uncontrolled growth of cells. The unregulated growth can lead to the development of cancer.

Working with the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx), researchers from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), CSIRO and St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, the researchers investigated ways to inhibit MYST proteins to treat cancer.

A large chemical compound screen led to the development of novel inhibitors of the MYST proteins. This was followed by a collaboration with researchers from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to expand the potential cancer spectrum that may benefit from MYST inhibitor treatment.

Nearly a quarter of a million different compounds were screened over several years to uncover this finding.

Compounds based on the early-stage discoveries of Professor Voss and Associate Professor Thomas progressed into clinical trials in late 2020.

New weapon to fight cancer 

Assoc Prof Thomas said this novel class of drugs has the potential to be an entirely new strategy towards fighting cancer.

“Our research has already shown great promise in halting cancer progression in models of blood and liver cancers. This is a significant step forward in combating the global health challenge of cancer,”

“We are grateful for this award and thank the team of 50 researchers who worked on this project with us. We hope our work highlights the importance of long-term investment in translational research to improve health outcomes for people impacted by cancer.”

The research attracted global media attention after it was published in Nature – the most esteemed scientific research publication – in 2018. They researchers have also been awarded the 2021 Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) Clunies Ross Knowledge Commercialisation Award, jointly with Professor Jonathan Baell (MIPS), and the 2021 Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation.

First published August 24 2023

First published on 24 August 2023
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Summer ‘23
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Profile photo of Anne Voss
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