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11 May 2022

Garvan projects funded for next stages

More than $1.8 million has been awarded to Garvan researchers to fund projects for breast cancer and immune system modelling.

A clinical trial for breast cancer, a study on fundamental cell processes and research into immune cell cooperation will progress at The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, thanks to funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Associate Professor Christine Chaffer has two projects that will move forward. She was awarded $668,000 by the MRFF to start a clinical trial on treatment for triple-negative breast cancers—so named because they lack three receptors usually found on this type of cancer, oestrogen, progesterone and HER2.

Currently, triple-negative breast cancers are very difficult to treat, and the focus is on improving quality of life and survival times for patients. Associate Professor Chaffer and her team discovered that blocking the androgen receptor prevents and treats chemotherapy-resistant triple-negative breast cancer. When combined with chemotherapy, overall survival is significantly improved in pre-clinical models and Associate Professor Chaffer and her team will now be able to test this new therapy in patients.

Associate Professor Chaffer also received $611,000 from the ARC to map the networks that govern how cells change states. Changing cell states lies at the core of almost every developmental and disease process in multicellular organisms. Along with colleagues Associate Professor Sarah Kummerfield, and Dr John Lock from UNSW, Associate Professor Chaffer aims to develop the first comprehensive understanding of the cell biology that underlies cell state change. These studies are a major step toward understanding the fundamentals of the basic units of life—our cells. They will use cutting-edge microscopy of live-cell imaging, and artificial intelligence to study how cells change back and forth from stem cells into non-stem cells in a process called cell plasticity.

“We are learning so much about how dynamic and adaptable cells can be when they need to be. Our studies are also showing us how normal cellular processes are exploited in cancer. The exciting part is that we are able to use this knowledge to develop new ways of treating cancer,” says Associate Professor Christine Chaffer.

Understanding how neutrophils swarm

Dr Tatyana Chtanova and the Innate and Tumour Immunology team received $600,000 from the ARC to develop a new scientific approach to investigate how our immune cells work together to defend us against infection. The project is a cross-disciplinary initiative between Dr Chtanova and Dr Mark Read from the University of Sydney and combines sophisticated microscopy data and computational biology. They will aim to understand how immune cells called neutrophils are mobilised, to help fight against infection.

Neutrophils are rapidly recruited to the sites of infection and then coalesce into swarms composed of many individual cells. The researchers don’t know yet why these swarms exist, but think that by working together within these swarms, neutrophils are able to fight off invading pathogens more effectively. This project will help researchers to gain insight into the importance of immune cell cooperation by developing computer-generated models of the immune response to infection. The research will enhance understanding of the fundamental principles of immunity.