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17 Sep 2018

Finding the path to personalised medicine in lung cancer

Garvan’s Dr Venessa Chin will be exploring new ways to match therapies to lung cancer patients, thanks to support from Pathfinders – a Sydney-based collective group with a mission to support cancer research at Garvan.

Lung cancer is a killer. It’s the leading cause of cancer death in Australia, and less than 20% of patients live for more than 5 years after diagnosis. 

“We want to change those statistics, and improve outcomes for those patients with lung cancer,” says Dr Venessa Chin, of Garvan’s Cancer Division.

Dr Chin has this week been awarded $10,000 by Pathfinders – a collective giving group who pool donations to support early-stage cancer research projects. The Pathfinders Award 2018 will enable her to kickstart an innovative new project to ‘fingerprint’ lung cancer –which could one day help clinicians decide on the most effective treatment for each patient.

Unanswered questions in lung cancer treatment

Dr Chin, who is a medical oncologist as well as a lung cancer researcher, says that treatment options in lung cancer are improving. However, deciding on the best course of treatment for each patient is still a major hurdle.

“Perhaps the most exciting development in lung cancer treatment is that we can now prescribe drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors,” Dr Chin says. “These are transformative new immunotherapies that help ‘unleash’ the body’s own immune system to attack cancer.

“We know that when these immunotherapies work, they are remarkably effective. But they don’t work for everyone, and right now, we have no way of knowing who would benefit most from immunotherapies. We also don’t know whether immunotherapy alone, or in combination with other therapies, is the best approach for any given patient.”

An immune cell ‘fingerprint’

To address this hurdle, Dr Chin will use the exciting new technology of single-cell sequencing, also called cellular genomics, to explore the tumours of Australians with advanced lung cancer. She will focus specifically on the immune cells that exist within each tumour. These are not cancerous cells, but rather a range of different immune cell types that infiltrate tumours.

 Dr Chin’s bold idea is that the spectrum of immune cells within a lung tumour is unique to that tumour – and is a kind of immune ‘fingerprint’.

“I want to uncover whether that fingerprint can help us predict which tumours will be vulnerable to immunotherapy,” she says.

If the ‘immune fingerprint’ is successful, the research will bring us one step closer to an era of personalised medicine for lung cancer – when we can treat the right person with the right drug at the right time. 

Support from Pathfinders

Dr Chin’s Pathfinders Award was presented on September 12 at Tesla’s flagship showroom in Sydney’s Martin Place. Simon Oaten, who heads Pathfinders, said, “We’re delighted to support Dr Chin explore this bold idea to personalise lung cancer treatment and look forward to hearing the outcomes of the pilot study.”

 This is the second time that the Pathfinders Award has been offered. The recipients of the inaugural Pathfinders Award in 2017 were Qian Du and Katherine Giles.