The future of cancer

The future of cancer

Illuminate newsletter index page, December 2019
December 2019

Institute cancer researchers
The multidisciplinary Institute team involved in the
ACRF Program for Resolving Cancer Complexity and
Therapeutic Resistance.

A $3.5M grant will arm a team of cancer biologists, clinicians, bioinformaticians, computational biologists and technology experts with cutting-edge tools to conquer the biggest challenges in cancer today.

In the past few decades there have been many exciting developments in cancer care. From genetic profiling to ‘precision’ medicine, there has been a transformation in cancer therapy and patient prognosis, in some cases extending lives by years or even decades.

However, even as new and promising therapies are approved, clinicians and researchers know that there will inevitably be patients whose cancers do not respond to therapies, or whose tumours quickly become resistant to the new treatment.

Now, Institute researchers are turning their attention to a new challenge in a bid to improve cancer care and survival. Why are cancers so complex and diverse? How are cancer cells influenced by their environment? And why do some cancers become resistant to therapy?

Complex challenge

Cancer cells are not all the same – between patients or even within a single patient. Cancers also evolve and change as a result of treatment and disease progression.
Professor Warren Alexander, joint leader of the Cancer Research and Treatments theme, said cancer diversity had a significant impact on how cancers develop and respond to therapies.

“The complexity and diversity of cancers at a single-cell level, and the cells that make up the environment around a tumour, have a profound effect on treatment response. It is often difficult to predict how – or if – a patient will respond to therapy, or whether they will relapse after treatment,” Professor Alexander said.

A $3.5M investment

In November, the Australian Cancer Research Fund (ACRF) announced a $3.5 million investment to establish the ACRF Program for Resolving Cancer Complexity and Therapeutic Resistance at the Institute, led by Professors Jane Visvader, Andrew Roberts and Clare Scott.

The multidisciplinary team includes 19 Institute cancer experts and their teams, who are accomplished leaders in blood, breast, gastrointestinal, lung, ovarian, pancreatic and skin cancers.

Professor Scott said the ACRF investment would enable the Institute to purchase a suite of new ‘single-cell’ technologies that provide capabilities not previously possible.

“This will lead to breakthroughs in how we personalise cancer therapy that will have a real impact for patients in the future.”

“Our goal is to acquire a deep understanding of how cancers develop at a single-cell level. This will lead to breakthroughs in how we personalise cancer therapy that will have a real impact for patients in the future, improving treatment response and overcoming treatment resistance,” she said.

Profiling lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide, with fewer than one in five people alive five years after diagnosis.

Associate Professor Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat and Dr Kate Sutherland are leading a project to study the complex interactions between the immune microenvironment and lung cancer cells. The interface between immunity and lung cancer must be better understood for major advances in therapy, said Associate Professor Asselin-Labat.

“With access to this new equipment we will be able to look at immune cells in lung cancers in unprecedented detail. We will focus on the role of the immune microenvironment in cancers as they transition from early-stage to invasive cancers, in the progression to metastatic disease, as well as their role in response or resistance to therapy,” she said.

“Better patient outcomes require tailoring immunotherapy to the individual characteristics of the tumour. We will identify biomarkers that can predict response to therapy, and new targets for developing novel immunotherapies.”

Tracking blood cancer

Associate Professor Edwin Hawkins has a track record of challenging the dogmas of blood cancer biology.

With powerful three-dimensional microscopy, he and his colleagues revealed in 2016 that chemotherapy-resistant leukaemia cells do not hide in protected areas of the bone marrow, as previously believed.

“Right before our eyes, the cells were sprinting off in all directions: dividing, jumping in and out of blood vessels and using such ‘highways’ to migrate and recolonise blood cancer, instead of hiding from treatment in unique microenvironments,” he said.

His project will now focus on how the interplay between cancer cells, the tumour microenvironment and cancer therapies contributes to the development of drug resistance.

“With this new equipment, we will be able to capture innovative time-lapse images of cancers in situ over huge areas of tissue with high time resolution, ranging from seconds through to weeks.

Importantly, we can now combine this data with single cell genomic information, measuring how chemo-resistant cancer clones are selected as well as the events that lead to disease relapse.

We believe this approach will help us identify new therapeutic strategies for treating cancer,” Associate Professor Hawkins said.

Super Content: 
Two female scientists in a laboratory

Dr Sarah Best and Dr Kate Sutherland have discovered distinctive characteristics in some lung cancers that could lead to personalised therapies.

Animation still showing cells changing

Our biomedical animation team explains the discoveries made by scientists through 3D animation.

Four researchers smiling at camera

A cutting-edge technique called cellular barcoding has been used to tag, track and pinpoint cells responsible for the spread of breast cancer from the main tumour into the blood and other organs.