Inter-disciplinary approach to medical research changing the way we think about cancer treatment

Paradigm shift in drug development that could transform healthcare.

Professor Stuart Tangye

Media Release: 21 June 2016

Scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research are looking beyond their specialty areas and taking an inter-disciplinary approach that is changing the way we think about the treatment of cancer.  This is considered to be the beginning of a paradigm shift in drug development that could truly transform healthcare.

The Garvan Institute’s cancer and immunology divisions are collaborating to harness the amazing power of the human immune system to improve outcomes for cancer patients. Focusing on the area of ‘cancer immunotherapy’, the teams aim to identify and develop new and more effective cancer therapies, prevention strategies, and perhaps even discover biomarkers that will pave the way for new diagnostic tests.

Professor Stuart Tangye, head of the Garvan Institute’s Immunology Division says that by understanding the immune system, and how it influences cancer development and progression, a relatively new approach to the treatment of cancer is evolving.

“Most traditional cancer drugs target the tumour. This exciting new approach to cancer treatment involves creating drugs that target cells of the immune system, not the cancer. Basically, we are taking the immune system – something that exists naturally in the body – and strengthening it to protect against, or attack a specific tumour type,” explains Professor Tangye.

While the concept of cancer immunotherapy is not new, this growing field of research, examining interactions between the immune system and cancer initiation, progression, recurrence and prevention, is proving to be a very powerful tool in the fight against cancer.

Professor Tangye says that many aspects of the immune system are still a mystery. “We all owe our survival to our immune system.  It protects us from a constant barrage of attacks, whether they come from outside the body (like bacteria, viruses and fungi), or from inside in the form of cancer.  One of the many questions we are still investigating is, how do cancers and other infectious diseases evade the immune system’s sophisticated protective mechanisms?”

International research and technological developments over the past three decades have lead to important cancer immunotherapy breakthroughs, including the preventative vaccine for cervical cancer, and the first cancer immunotherapy ever proven to extend the lives of patients with metastatic melanoma.  Another example, cell mediated immunotherapy, is showing promise with some exciting results for patients internationally. This process involves removing millions of a patient’s T-cells – a type of white blood cell – and inserting new genes. In some cases, once infused back into the patient, the improved T-cells are able to destroy the cancer cells.

This collaboration between Garvan’s cancer and immunology divisions is an example of a wider shift in the dynamics of the research community.  Partly driven by the natural progression of research, and partly by financial necessity, scientists are now combining their skills, knowledge and resources (both within Garvan and across Australia and the globe) to unravel the mechanisms by which different systems within the body ‘talk’ to one another, and how this ‘talk’ influences the development, progression, treatment and prevention of many diseases – not just cancer.

Professor Tangye says, “Instead of focusing on a single specialty, such as immunology or neuroscience, many researchers are now making significant breakthroughs by taking a inter-disciplinary approach.  By doing this, Garvan researchers hope to find more effective ways of treating, and ultimately preventing, some of the most common and often devastating diseases affecting our community today.”

The current state of funding for Australian medical research means that this collaborative approach is also born of necessity. 

Mr Andrew Giles, Chief Executive of the Garvan Research Foundation explains, “Garvan’s research ranks highly, and we are pleased that our research is recognised with Government funding.  However, the simple fact is, for every dollar that Garvan scientists receive in Government funding, we must find an additional 70 cents in donations in order to continue the important breakthroughs.  This collaborative approach to research is a great example of how Garvan’s researchers are making the most of every research dollar available to them.”

This inter-disciplinary approach to collaborative research is not exclusive to cancer and immunology.  It is being embraced by divisions and teams across Garvan.  Examples of other collaborative projects currently underway within Garvan include:

  • Prostate cancer investigators are working with experts in bone biology, breast cancer, transcriptomics and genomics on a project called ‘PROMIS’.  It aims to understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for metastatic prostate cancer, which remains incurable and is invariably lethal.
  • Garvan’s Diabetes and Metabolism Division is working closely with the Cancer Division on developing novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of breast cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma, the latter being the fastest rising cause of cancer-related deaths in developed countries such as Australia.
  • Teams from Garvan’s Bone and Neuroscience Divisions are working together to explore how the neural network that controls appetite and energy also alters bone density, a surprising finding from previous work at the Garvan.  The aim is to harness this to develop treatments for osteoporosis.

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 For interviews or additional information, contact:

Kylie Ironside, Garvan Research Foundation    or         Anna Greenhalgh, Garvan Research Foundation

Ph. 02 9295 8116 or 0413 611 959                               Ph. 02 9295 8126 or 0437 282 467

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