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12 Mar 2020

Cancer Council funding for Garvan research

Four Garvan scientists will pioneer world-leading research on breast, pancreatic and bone cancer, thanks to funding from Cancer Council NSW.

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research congratulates Dr Michelle McDonald, Dr Joanna Achinger-Kawecka, Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick and Dr Omid Faridani, who have all received Cancer Council NSW funding to lead new projects in cancer research.

Their projects are four of 14 grants awarded in NSW. Together, Garvan Institute researchers were awarded over $1.7 million in funding over three years.

“The grants are a testament to the pioneering cancer research that is happening here at Garvan, which employs some of the most advanced cellular genomics and imaging methods. Through this crucial research we look forward to contributing to life-changing treatments for patients,” says Professor Chris Goodnow, Executive Director of the Garvan Institute.

The funded projects are:

Dormant cancer cells in bone

Dr Michelle McDonald (Group Leader – Bone Microenvironment Group)

‘Dormant’ cancer cells that have spread to the bone and stopped dividing can reactivate years after cancer therapy, and are a significant cause of cancer relapse in patients.

Using an advanced imaging technique pioneered at Garvan, Dr Michelle McDonald and her team have revealed that high levels of bone resorption – a maintenance process by which the body breaks down tissues in bone – can reactivate dormant cancer cells and accelerate cancer growth.

Through their funded project, the researchers aim to demonstrate that early anti-resorptive therapy can keep tumour cells in a dormant state and prevent relapse in experimental models, a crucial first step to improving outcomes and survival in patients.

Epigenetic therapies for hormone resistant breast cancers

Dr Joanna Achinger-Kawecka (Senior Research Officer - Epigenetics Research Laboratory)

Hormone therapy is an effective treatment for the 70% of all breast cancers patients that are estrogen receptor positive (ER+). However, over a third of patients develop resistance to this treatment and relapse within 15 years.

Dr Achinger-Kawecka and her team propose that three-dimensional epigenetic remodeling – changes to the layer of instructions that organises and regulates DNA’s activity – is an underlying mechanism that determines sensitivity to hormone therapy.

The researchers will use cutting-edge techniques to establish the links between epigenetics and hormone resistance in breast cancer. They aim to develop new potential therapeutic strategies that more effectively treat patients and reduce cancer relapse.

Metastatic breast cancer: improving therapy

Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick (Laboratory Head – Tumour Progression Laboratory)

Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment designed to activate the immune system to better target tumours, and is revolutionising the treatment of several cancers. However, it is yet to make a substantial impact on the management of breast cancer, partly because researchers do not fully understand how the immune system responds to metastatic breast cancer cells.

In their research project, Associate Professor Swarbrick and his team will employ Garvan’s advanced cellular genomics technology to define different cell types and identify therapeutic targets present in metastatic breast cancers. Through these discoveries, the researchers aim to develop more effective immunotherapy strategies that improve outcomes for patients.

Pancreatic cancer diagnostic

Dr Omid Faridani (Group Leader – Garvan-Weizmann Centre for Cellular Genomics; Group Leader – UNSW Lowy Cancer Research Centre)

Pancreatic cancer is one of the world’s most lethal cancers, with a 5-year survival rate of just ~9%. Patients with advanced cases often receive chemotherapy, but knowing whether a treatment is effective early on could improve the treatment strategy.

In his project, Dr Faridani aims to develop a diagnostic that can predict how well a patient will respond to chemotherapy, from their blood sample. By isolating and analysing the rare circulating pancreatic cancer cells from the blood, the researchers hope to uncover signatures that can predict treatment response.

This innovative research could significantly reduce time spent on ineffective treatments and improve the survival outcomes of those affected by pancreatic cancer.