Halting the chatter to stop cancer

Halting the chatter to stop cancer

21 November 2019

Scientist standing smiling at camera
Dr Tracy Putoczki has won a $1.25 million grant to
study the role of cellular communication in cancer.

Cancer researcher Dr Tracy Putoczki has won a five-year, $1.25 million Viertel Fellowship to study how communication between tumours and their environment helps cancers grow and spread.

The fellowships are awarded by the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation and administered by Equity Trustees.

Dr Putoczki said the funding would enable her to continue untangling the role of cellular communication in cancer development and progression.

“My laboratory is focused on how cells in and around the cancer talk to each other. By understanding how they are chatting, where they are chatting, and with whom, we can disrupt these conversations as a way of treating or eliminating the cancer," Dr Putoczki said.

Critical communications

Improvements in our understanding of the genes that drive cancer has led to new, targeted treatments for many cancers, Dr Putoczki said.

“However we are just beginning to understand how cells in the tumour environment influence cancer growth and disease progression. The tumour microenvironment also influences whether a tumour will respond to cancer therapies, and whether the cancer will relapse.”

Dr Putoczki has spent 10 years investigating how cell signalling molecules – called cytokines – influence cancer. In 2013, she was part of a team that showed a cytokine called interleukin-11 (IL-11) was one of the most important cytokines that stimulate the growth and spread of cancers.

“We showed that blocking interleukin-11 in models of stomach and bowel cancer stopped tumour growth and could lead to tumour shrinkage,” Dr Putoczki said. “This makes IL-11 a promising potential target for treating many types of solid cancers.”

Making an impact

As a laboratory head, Dr Putoczki has continued to investigate how IL-11 impacts cancers, such as pancreatic and bowel cancers.

“Cancers such as pancreatic cancer and bowel cancer are two of the biggest cancer killers in Australia. What we learn about how IL-11 and other cytokines communicate with cancers will enable us to develop better treatments for these diseases.

"I’m very grateful for the Viertel Foundation’s investment in helping us achieve this goal," she said.

Professor Peter Leedman, chair of the Viertel Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board, said the 2019 applications were of an extremely high standard. “Each year we are impressed by the quality of the candidates and the incredible work they are doing in pursuit of new diagnostics, treatments and preventative strategies for some of our most intractable medical problems,” said Professor Leedman.

Dr Putoczki is a laboratory head in the Personalised Oncology division and recipient of the inaugural Australian Society of Medical Research Peter Doherty Leading Light Award. Dr Putoczki was one of three 2019 Viertel Fellows announced.

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