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04 Jan 2022

A/Prof Thomas Cox awarded NHMRC Development Grant

Garvan’s Associate Professor Thomas Cox has received funding to investigate a new treatment approach for pancreatic cancer.

Thomas Cox

Associate Professor Thomas Cox from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has been awarded an $827,500 NHMRC Development Grant to lead a multidisciplinary team investigating a promising new treatment approach for pancreatic cancer.

The grant will support preclinical laboratory studies that will assess the efficacy of the new combination strategy in experimental models and are aimed to help progress the approach to clinical trials.

“By 2030, pancreatic cancer will become the second most prevalent cancer in Australia, overtaking breast, prostate and colon cancers. Therapeutic approaches have not advanced significantly in decades and new treatments are urgently needed,” says Associate Professor Cox, who heads the Matrix and Metastasis Lab at the Garvan Institute.

“This project will investigate a new combination approach to target the pancreatic cancer scar tissue – a key driver of treatment resistance – which we hope will improve the efficacy of chemotherapy for patients.”

A new approach for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive cancer with a five-year survival rate of less than 10%. A significant contributor to these poor patient outcomes is that pancreatic tumours develop resistance to standard-of-care treatment, such as chemotherapies.

“Treatment resistance in pancreatic cancer is partially driven by fibrosis – a process by which scar tissue builds up throughout and around the tumour tissue. This scar tissue can prevent treatments from reaching their tumour target and also stimulate cancer growth and spread,” explains Associate Professor Cox.   

“Tumours need specific enzymes called lysyl oxidases to build the main constituent of this damaging scar tissue. Our preclinical studies in experimental models have revealed that targeting lysyl oxidases can reduce fibrosis and improve the efficiency of chemotherapy. Further, they have pointed us to an experimental therapy that we will now help progress to clinical trials.”

Collaborating with industry partner Pharmaxis, the Garvan-led team will conduct further preclinical studies of the experimental treatment in combination with chemotherapy. As part of this work, the team will also aim to validate biomarkers they previously identified as a potential tool to guide which patients are most likely to benefit from the therapy approach, and to monitor treatment response in real time. 

“Together, our work aims to support commercialisation of the new treatment approach for pancreatic cancer, which we hope will translate to much-needed improvements of patient outcomes,” says Associate Professor Cox.

A/Prof Thomas Cox is a Conjoint Associate Professor at St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNSW Sydney.