Key support for Garvan’s cancer research in 2018 and beyond

Garvan researchers are thrilled to be among the recipients of grants in recently announced funding schemes from the National Breast Cancer Foundation and Cancer Australia. The funding will provide crucial support for a number of cancer research projects, as we work towards improving diagnostics, treatments and outcomes for individuals with cancer.

A single cancer cell (round circle) being analysed by cellular genomics. Image: Rob Salomon

22 January 2018

As 2018 gets underway, scientists across the Garvan Institute of Medical Research have returned to their laboratories, several of them with new grants to support their innovative research projects. Funding from the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), Cancer Australia, Cure Cancer Australia and Cancer Council NSW will help drive investigations into novel therapeutic approaches for breast and pancreatic cancer, and new methods for earlier detection of sarcoma.

Four research projects at Garvan will be funded by grants totalling over $1.8 million from the NBCF, which were announced in November 2017. Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick, Dr Clare Stirzaker, Dr David Herrmann and Dr David Croucher will lead the investigations.

Two researchers, Dr Marina Pajic and Dr Mark Pinese, were awarded grants through Cancer Australia’s Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme, announced in December 2017.

Garvan congratulates all the researchers involved as they embark on their new endeavours.

Professor David Thomas, Head of Garvan’s Cancer Division and Director of The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, says, “I’m delighted that these talented and committed researchers will be able to lead these projects for the next few years. Funding is crucial for our work and I am very grateful to NBCF, Cancer Australia, Cure Cancer Australia and Cancer Council NSW for their support.”

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Clockwise from top left: Dr Clare Stirzaker, Dr Mark Pinese, A/Prof Alex Swarbrick, Dr David Croucher, Dr Marina Pajic and Dr David Herrmann

The grant recipients are:

NBCF 2018 Investigator Initiated Research Scheme

Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick, Cancer Division

Discovering new therapeutic strategies for metastatic triple negative breast cancer at cellular resolution

A/Prof Swarbrick will investigate what drives triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive subtype of breast cancer associated with poor patient outcome. He will use single cell genomics to explore how recurrent, metastatic TNBC cells interact with the surrounding breast tissue and the immune system, and how these interactions affect their response to chemotherapy. The goal of this work is to more completely understand the TNBC ‘ecosystem’, in order to provide potential new targets for therapeutic development.

A/Prof Swarbrick and the Garvan team will collaborate with oncologists, pathologists and other experts at several other institutions in Australia and overseas, including St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, the University of Queensland, and the New York Genome Center.

Dr Clare Stirzaker, Genomics and Epigenetics Division

Novel epigenetic blood biomarker panel to stratify triple negative breast cancer

The aim of Dr Stirzaker’s study is to evaluate the use of epigenetic mechanisms (DNA methylation signatures) as prognostic and predictive tools for individuals with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). Currently, there are no biomarkers by which TNBC patients can be accurately separated into high-risk and low-risk subgroups or to predict their response to therapy. The goal of this research is to develop a blood-based clinical test that can better inform patients and their clinicians of their disease, and can be used to non-invasively monitor of response to therapy and residual disease.

Dr Stirzaker will drive the project, with a team comprised of experienced researchers from Garvan and other collaborating institutions including the University of Newcastle, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, and Monash University.

Dr David Herrmann, Cancer Division

‘Priming’ the immunosuppressive tumour microenvironment of breast cancer to boost immunotherapy and survival outcomes

Immunotherapy – using an individuals’ own immune system to attack cancer cells – has in recent years shown therapeutic potential in several types of cancer. Dr Herrmann will be investigating if short-term ‘priming’ of the tumour microenvironment can enhance response to immunotherapy in breast cancer. They will use a ‘biosensor’ mouse model that is available only at Garvan, to determine when the priming is most effective, and if it improves outcome.

This project will involve a team of researchers and clinicians from other research institutes including the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research and the University of Glasgow, UK.

Dr David Croucher, Cancer Division

Targeting stiffness induced JNK activity as a novel therapy in triple negative breast cancer

Dr Croucher’s study will focus on a complex protein called ‘JNK’, which promotes aggressive growth and invasion of triple negative breast cancers (TNBCs), despite also suppressing tumours in other tissues. The aim of this research is to test a new approach to switch off JNK activity in mouse models of TNBC. Dr Croucher has previously identified key proteins that regulate JNK in TNBCs. With a team of researchers from Garvan and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, he aims to target these proteins, blocking JNK in TNBC cells without affecting its positive role elsewhere in the body.

Cancer Australia Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme (PdCCRS)

Dr Marina Pajic, Cancer Division

Standard Project Grant, co-funded by Cancer Australia and Cancer Council NSW

Dual targeting of Src and JAK/STAT3 signalling as a novel personalised treatment strategy for pancreatic cancer

Dr Pajic’s project focuses on developing personalised treatment approaches for pancreatic cancer. She will study the complex role of specific cancer-promoting proteins in resistance to pancreatic cancer therapy. She will then examine whether targeting the cancer cells within tumours, or targeting the tumour microenvironment, is more effective at improving response to clinically used chemotherapeutic drugs.

This work will involve several researchers and clinicians from Garvan, Royal North Shore Hospital, and other NSW institutions.

Dr Mark Pinese, Cancer Division

Young Investigator Project Grant, supported by Cure Cancer Australia

Comprehensively surveying the complex genetic determinants of sarcoma risk

Dr Pinese will be undertaking a complex and comprehensive analysis of the genetics of sarcoma. This will involve exploring parts of the genome that are usually not examined, using innovative bioinformatic and statistical methods to see if they play a role in sarcoma risk. The aim of this study will be to develop a method for identifying individuals at high risk of developing sarcoma, who can then be screened regularly to enable early detection, and improve patient outcome.