Harnessing the power of immunotherapy for all cancers

The last decade has seen the emergence of immunotherapy, which involves supercharging the body’s immune system to fight cancer. 

The clinical response for cancer patients has been nothing short of remarkable, but sadly, not all patients respond. 

Why do some patients respond to immunotherapy and not others? Why are some cancers receptive to immunotherapy, while others are highly resistant?

The secret to harnessing the power of immunotherapy for all cancers lies hidden in the dark space of tumours. 

We need to look deep into the dark spaces of tumour cell microenvironments, where interactions between cancer cells and immune cells are complex, dynamic and changing. We need to see what we've never been able to see before — in vivo — that is, inside living tissue.

Our world-class interdisciplinary team, led by Professor Tri Phan, has developed two of the world’s most powerful microscopes to allow us to do just that. Their improved visualisation is 5 times faster, 5 times brighter and 5 times deeper

Infinite possibilities

It's taken 10 years and a team of internationally renowned experts here at Garvan and collaborators from 23 research labs to pioneer this world-first technology.

This new technology uses cutting-edge molecular probes, adaptive optics technology and new endomicroscopic lenses, which are the width of a hair, to study deeply buried tumours with greater clarity. 

The insights we'll gain will help us ‘reprogram’ the immunosuppressive environment of all cancers. The possibilities for advancing our research are infinite.

Borrowing ideas from astronomy and engineering, our team has developed two of the world’s most powerful microscopes to look deeper — and in real-time — into the dark spaces of tumour cell microenvironments. This powerful technology is set to transform the field of cancer immunotherapy research.

Read about a few of our projects below. You can help us to find the answers we know are there.

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Being able to study the complex cancer immune cell ecosystems in vivo for the first time opens up exciting new horizons for research and discovery.

We’re building a new Centre at Garvan to house these microscopes. It's called the Australian Cancer Research Foundation Centre for Intravital Imaging of Niches for Cancer Immune Therapy — or ACRF INCITe Centre. Professor Tri Phan, one of our Chief Investigators, says the new technology is “the chance to test ideas that have, until now, been the stuff of dreams”.

With the establishment of the ACRF INCITe Centre (due to open in April 2021), we have cleared the path for established projects to advance and answer questions that we’ve never been able to ask before. Together, we'll get closer to improving the effectiveness of immunotherapies and targeted treatments for all cancers.

Projects on the way

The work of A/Prof Marina Pajic into pancreatic cancer is a top priority.

We have already made significant breakthroughs in understanding how to target drug and immunotherapy resistance in pancreatic cancer by focusing on the microenvironment that surrounds the tumour. The insights we will be able to gain with this technology will help us discover how to ‘reprogram’ the immunosuppressive environment of pancreatic cancer and ultimately unleash the potential benefits of immunotherapy.

We are excited to use this technology to investigate what molecular mechanisms dormant metastatic myeloma cells are using to escape the immune system – and disguise themselves as a normal part of a local microenvironment – and how to ‘decloak’ them. Our plan is then to develop approaches that will allow us to eradicate these dormant cancer cells.

A/Prof Thomas Cox will look into the living tumour. As tumours grow, they assemble a tumour ‘matrix’ around them, which increases their aggressiveness, and decreases the effectiveness of cancer drugs. By deconstructing tumours, we have revealed the list of matrix building blocks. Using this new technology will allow us to see exactly how these building blocks are assembled in 3D in living tumours and uncover new ways to remove this protective barrier to increase the power of existing drugs, and help immune cells gain access into the tumour.

Marina Pajic

A/Prof Marina Pajic

A/Prof Elissa Deenick

A/Prof Marina Pajic


Prof Peter Croucher