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16 Oct 2023

International fellowship for Garvan breast cancer researcher

Research into predictive biomarkers at Garvan has been recognised internationally with a significant funding boost.

Alex Swarbrick

In a positive development for personalised medicine, Garvan’s Professor Alex Swarbrick has been awarded an Investigator Award from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), based in New York. The highly competitive fellowship will provide Professor Swarbrick with annual research funding to support his innovative work discovering new biomarkers and treatment approaches in breast cancer.

Professor Swarbrick, head of the Swarbrick Lab at Garvan, was selected from a strong field of applicants by an international scientific advisory committee. BCRF Investigators represent some of the most talented minds in breast cancer research worldwide.

“I’m honoured to receive this fellowship, which will be invaluable in progressing our goal of developing more personalised therapies for breast cancer patients,” said Professor Swarbrick. “This work is a collective effort, and it would not be possible without the outstanding environment for discovery-based research provided here at Garvan as well as the invaluable contributions of my collaborators.” This includes deep collaborations with numerous clinicians, in particular medical oncologists Professor Elgene Lim (Garvan, The Kinghorn Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney) and Dr Mun Hui (Chris O’Brien Lifehouse) and pathologist Professor Sandra O’Toole.

The funding will support Professor Swarbrick to study the diverse communities of cells within breast tumours, using cutting-edge spatial transcriptomics – a technique that allows scientists to see where different genes are being activated within a tissue or cell sample. His team will examine how these complex cell communities change during treatment and how these changes affect subsequent patient outcomes.

“Currently, doctors have limited ability to predict whether a breast cancer patient will respond well to a given therapy. We aim to understand how the organisation of different cell types influences tumour behaviour and response to treatment,” explained Professor Swarbrick. “These findings could also potentially lead to new treatment targets and strategies to help patients that are unlikely to respond to standard therapies.”

The project will include analysis of breast cancer patients’ tumour samples before and during ‘neoadjuvant chemotherapy’, which is given pre-surgery to shrink tumours and gauge response. It will also use mouse models of triple-negative breast cancer to validate new therapy approaches – a combined approach to provide comprehensive insight into cellular dynamics influencing tumour behaviour.

“By comparing responsive and non-responsive tumours, we hope to pinpoint key drivers of treatment resistance and sensitivity,” said Professor Swarbrick. “Long-term, we believe these fundamental insights into breast cancer ecosystems will contribute to an increase in survivors and enhance their quality of life.”

As a leader in applying single-cell and spatial analysis to reveal the varied characteristics of tumour cells, Professor Swarbrick is at the forefront of translating these advanced techniques into the clinic. This work builds on his outstanding contributions across breast, prostate and skin cancer research over the past decade.

“I’m extremely grateful to receive this award from the BCRF. It represents an exciting opportunity for my team and I to make substantial progress in tackling the challenges of breast cancer,” said Professor Swarbrick.

Professor Swarbrick is a Conjoint Professor at St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNSW Sydney.