A/Prof Alex Swarbrick and Prof Vanessa Hayes
29 October 2021
Two innovative cancer research projects at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research have been awarded highly competitive grants totalling US$1.68 million (AU$2.23 million) by the US Department of Defense.
Professor Vanessa Hayes and Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick are leading the two projects, which are investigating the genomic and environmental factors that lead to severe prostate and breast cancers, in a bid to improve patient outcomes.
Funding for these projects comes through the US Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, a highly competitive grant program open to research institutes around the world that was established to invest in ground-breaking projects and target critical gaps in basic and translational research.
Professor Chris Goodnow, Director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, says, “These grants highlight Garvan’s world-leading cancer research expertise and capability. We are delighted to see the US Department of Defense recognise the Institute’s long history of globally impactful science in this field.
“International grants programs such as this will continue to be important to Australian medical researchers as funding becomes increasingly competitive.”
Professor Vanessa Hayes
High-risk prostate cancer in southern Africa: Unravelling the genome and exposome (TARGET Africa)
Professor Hayes was awarded US$749,000 (AU$994,000) to study the genetic and non-genetic influences that contribute to the significantly higher mortality rate of African men with prostate cancer.
While incidence rates of prostate cancer are highest in Australia, Africa has the highest mortality rates, particularly in southern Africa where a man has a 3.5x higher risk of dying from prostate cancer compared to the global average.
The TARGET Africa project will examine the genome, epigenome and exposome (all of the non-genetic exposures to health risks) to uncover the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that contribute to higher mortality rates in African men.
The multi-faceted project includes lifestyle analytics between 2,500 men from southern Africa compared with 1,000 African American men. The project also involves a unique study of 80 men diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer living in a remote village in Africa. The team will develop new methods of data interrogation to link genomic, epigenomic and exposomic data, and ultimately link the data generated to the largest global prostate cancer genomic resource.
Ultimately, this study aims to identify using genomic and data science, if an environmental carcinogen is contributing, at least in part, to aggressive prostate cancer in Africa. This study could have immediate implications for disease prevention by providing the first evidence for a modifiable risk factor for prostate cancer.
Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick
Systems immunology for breast cancer
Associate Professor Swarbrick was awarded a US$931,000 (AU$1.24 million) grant to identify and characterise new subsets of cells that make up the environment in and around a tumour, which suppress the immune system’s ability to attack breast cancer cells.
Immunotherapies have shown to significantly improve outcomes for patients with other forms of cancer such as skin cancer, but are only effective in less than 10% of breast cancer patients. This project could help overcome this barrier by uncovering why breast cancers are so resistant to immunotherapies.
By identifying the molecules these cell subsets use to block the immune system, Associate Professor Swarbrick’s team aims to develop new therapies to target these mechanisms and boost the immune response to breast cancer, potentially opening up new options for patients whose tumours don’t respond to other forms of treatment.
This could prove especially beneficial to patients when combined with other treatments such as immunotherapy.
More broadly, this project could advance scientists’ understanding of how other forms of cancer evade the immune system and provide clues as to how this can be overcome.