Perkins researchers secure grants to investigate critical health issues

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Researchers from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research have received more than $500,000 in funding in 2017 to investigate new and improved ways to diagnose and treat some of the most aggressive forms of cancer.

Perkins researchThe funding was awarded by Cancer Council WA in the form of scholarships, fellowships and project grants to research a broad range of cancer types such as breast, pancreatic and lung cancer.

Perkins Director, Professor Peter Leedman, congratulated the grant recipients for their hard work and their commitment to improving the health of the community.

“Our researchers are dedicated to delivering answers for patients and families. We’re not doing research for the sake of doing it, we are constantly on the hunt for solutions so that one day we can beat cancer together,” Professor Leedman said.

“I’d like to extend my appreciation to the Cancer Council for its ongoing support of cutting-edge medical research in Western Australia.”

Three major Research Fellowships were awarded to Perkins senior leaders: Dr Andrew Redfern, Clinical head of the Perkins cancer division, Associate Professor Oliver Rackham, Head of the Synthetic Biology and Drug Discover Laboratory and Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort, Head of the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory.

Cancer Council Chief Executive Officer Susan Rooney said the funding reflected the charity’s ongoing commitment to make funding cancer research a priority.

Perkins funding recipients

Cancer Council Western Australia Research Fellowships

Epigenetic tailoring of the cancer genome: novel targeted strategies for the treatment of aggressive breast cancer

Fellow: Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort
Research description: The research team will use laboratory techniques known as molecular engineering to make proteins that can identify and lock onto individual genes associated with the development and spread of basal-cell breast cancer. These proteins, or epi-modifiers, will act as switches that turn specific genes on or off so the basal cancer cells become more like normal healthy cells again. This team will test different combinations of these epi-modifiers to find those that work best to prevent basal-cell breast cancer growth and development. Once successful combinations have been identified, the team will then explore how these can be used in patients. They will begin by carrying out pre-clinical studies to investigate new ways to deliver the epi-modifiers to tumours.
Funding from CCWA $20,000 ($80,000 total, $20,000 pa for 2014-2017) - Fully supported through an anonymous estate

Correcting gene expression in pancreatic cancer

Fellow: Associate Professor Oliver Rackham
Research description: Normal genes responsible for cell growth, development, and differentiation can cause cancer when their activity or expression is increased, so called “oncogenes”. Other genes that normally act to stop the uncontrolled growth of cells - “tumour suppressor” genes - can also cause cancer if mutations or reduced gene expression lower their activity. Therefore, cancer is fundamentally a disease of defective genes and gene expression. This project will use cutting edge synthetic biology approaches to create new technologies to control gene expression, providing new ways to understand cancer targets and new protein-based therapies to modulate gene expression in cancers that resist current treatment regimes.
Funding from CCWA $100,000 ($400,000 total, $100,000 pa for 2015-2018) - Supported In the names of the Estate of Roy Billing & through an anonymous estate

Clinical Research Fellowship in Cancer at Fiona Stanley Hospital

Fellow: Dr Andy Redfern
Research description: This Fellowship in medical oncology is funded in collaboration with the Western Australian Government and The University of Western Australia. Its purpose is to improve the clinical care available to people diagnosed with cancer in Western Australia. Dr Redfern is involved in many clinical trials and other research projects. His research seeks to develop better treatments for cancer patients to improve their survival and quality of life.
Funding from CCWA $50,000 ($500,000 total, $100,000 pa, July 2012 - June 2017) - Supported In the name of the Estate of Shaun Carlson

Cancer Council Western Australia Research Project Grants

A novel strategy to kill triple negative breast cancers

Lead researcher Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort
Research description: This project focuses on the development of novel treatments for triple negative breast cancers. Because these breast cancers don’t have molecules normally present in other subtypes of breast cancers for which there are targeted drugs, they are currently not possible to treat. In addition, these tumours spread quickly from the breast to other sites of the body and at this stage the tumour cells are able to evade chemotherapy and become easily resistant to treatment. This proposal aims to develop new drugs designed to block these tumors preventing their growth, spread and resistance. State of the art technologies developed in Western Australia will allow for the delivery of these drugs directly into the tumours avoiding other sites of the body such as the liver or other organs. This research could be used in future clinical trials in Western Australia providing novel tailored cures for a group of breast cancers that are currently highly resistant to chemotherapy.
Funding from CCWA $100,000 Supported In the name of Annadora Horne & Thelma Norris Trust Fund 

Hitting the off-switch to stop cancer cells spreading

Lead researcher: Associate Professor Evan Ingley
Research description: Death from cancer occurs mainly when it spreads to different parts of the body. We have identified the gene AFAP1L1 is involved in controlling the spreading of bone cancer (sarcoma), which is a cancer more common in young adults, with 1200 new cases a year in Australia. Patients with sarcoma that are found to be spreading have a bad diagnosis, with only 20% surviving more than 5 years. There is a need to find out how the gene AFAP1L1 can control cancer spread. The team will also be trying to find out how to turn off AFAP1L1 to prevent or stop cancer cells spreading. This will be done by taking cancer cells and switching off AFAP1L1 and seeing if they still spread using pre-clinical models of cancer. It is hoped this research will show that AFAP1L1 is very important in making sarcoma cells spread, and find ways to turn it off in order to start developing new drugs to stop cancer cells spreading and killing patients.
Funding from CCWA $100,000 - Fully supported In the name of Jill Tilly

Micro-elastography: A new surgical tool to reduce the number of re-excision breast cancer surgeries

Lead researcher: Dr Brendan Kennedy
Research description: In breast-conserving surgery, up to 1-in-3 patients require additional surgery because the tumour was missed during the initial surgery. A main reason for this is that existing tools to detect tumour intraoperatively are not good enough. The aim is to provide an engineering solution to this problem by developing a high resolution imaging system, microelastography, which can detect tumour based on microscopic changes in tissue stiffness. In this project, excised breast tissue, removed during breast-conserving surgery will be scanned using micro-elastography. By comparing the results against the gold standard of post-operative pathology, it will be possible to determine the accuracy of micro-elastography in assessing the presence of breast cancer at the boundaries of the excised mass. This information will enable the researchers to further develop microelastography into a tool that can be used by surgeons to assess the presence of any cancer missed during surgery, with the ultimate goal of reducing the need for second surgeries.
Funding from CCWA $100,000 - Supported In the name of the Estate of Judith Smart

Cancer Council Western Australia Suzanne Cavanagh Early Career Investigator Grants

The smart surgical glove: a new tool to reduce the number of re-excision surgeries in breast cancer treatment

Lead researcher: Dr Lixin Chin
Research description: It is reported that 20-30% of patients undergoing breast conserving surgery for treatment of breast cancer require a second surgery because small amounts of cancer were missed during the initial surgery. Existing techniques are unable to assess the boundary of the surgical cavity. The judgement as to whether a second surgery is required is based solely on analysis of the excised tissue, which is available only some time (often days) after the surgery. This team are researching the development of small, flexible, high resolution imaging probes in order to enable surgeons to assess the tumour cavity during the initial surgery, with the ultimate goal of reducing the need for second surgeries.
Funding from CCWA $35,000 - Supported In the names of Carnarvon Lions Club Cancer Research Foundation & the Estate of Daisy De Gennaro

Exploring new ways to stop lung or breast cancer from spreading

Lead researcher: Dr Bo He
Research description: Cancer remains a deadly disease, in no small part because cancer spreads to distant organs (metastasis). This project will focus on prevention of spreading or – if it has already happened at time of surgery - how to attack and keep metastatic cancer under control. Tumour blood vessels are abnormally “leaky” and help cancer cells escape to other organs. The team have developed a new drug to tighten up these “leaky” vessels. This research uses preclinical models of lung and breast cancer to explore whether tightening of vessels can stop cancer spreading. Mice harbouring a cancer will be treated with this new drug and the changes studied. This research is also looking into what happens when cancer is cut out, similar to surgery in breast cancer patients. The aim is to find out whether this new drug together with a non-harmful dose of chemotherapy can keep small metastatic tumours that remain in the body after surgery under control. This is instead of using treatments like radiation or chemotherapy, which severely affects patients’ wellbeing. Funding from CCWA $35,000 Supported In the names of the Dorothy and Bill Irwin Charitable Trust & Yvonne Baker Foundation

Cancer Council Western Australia PhD Top Up Scholarships

Improving tumour detection using multimodality imaging

Recipient: Ms Meenu Chopra
Project description: This research aims to enhance the capacity of imaging instruments, positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and near-infrared imager in detecting breast and liver cancers in preclinical models. Cancer-targeted imaging nanoparticles will be developed to detect cancers non-invasively using: Combined PET/MRI imaging and Combined MRI/near-infrared imager.
Funding from CCWA $12,000 ($36,000 total, $12,000 pa for 2016-2018) - Supported In the name of the Estate of Les Matheson

Treating the most aggressive breast cancers using molecules from natural substances

Recipient: Ms Ciara Duffy
Research description: Breast cancer remains a serious health threat for women, which occurs frequently with devastating outcomes. There are no drugs available which can specifically target the most difficult to treat breast cancers, such as triple-negative breast cancer. For people with this subtype, the only treatment options are chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, which can have lifelong side effects. Natural substances have been studied for a long time, and shown to work in killing cancer cells. The major molecules in these cancer selective natural compounds will be investigated. This research will involve treating breast cancer cells with these anti-cancer molecules and understanding how the cells die. The molecules will also be delivered using very small targeted particles. In this project, the aim is to develop a new targeted drug derived from natural molecules, which will selectively kill the most difficult to treat breast cancer cells.
Funding from CCWA $6,000 ($12,000 total, $6,000 pa for 2017-2018) - Fully supported In the name of Gilmac Pty Ltd

Cancer Council Western Australia Honours Scholarships

Investigating the cross-talk between genetic mutations and epigenetic silencing in genes that prevent cancer

Recipient: Ms Fiona Nugent
Research description: Cancer can be driven by both genetic mutations that affect the DNA code directly, and errors that cause the wrong genes to be silenced. Gene silencing is caused by small “marks” on the DNA which tell the cell to pack it up tightly, preventing the genes in that area from being accessed and used. This control of DNA packing is known as “epigenetics”, and if it goes wrong, it can lead to the silencing of tumour suppressor genes – vital sentinels that protect our cells from becoming cancerous. Most genes have two copies stored in each cell of our bodies. This means that even if there is a genetic mutation in one copy of a tumour suppressor gene, the effect can be mitigated by the remaining working copy. However, when genetic mutations occur in one tumour suppressor copy, the other copy is often silenced later on. The tumour suppressor can then no longer protect the cell, which can cause healthy cells to become cancerous, or cause cancers to become more aggressive. This connection between genetic mutations and epigenetic silencing suggests that there is a “cross-talk” that tells cells to pack away and turn off the second gene copy when the first becomes mutated. The aim of this project is to test whether this cross-talk exists and if so, how it works.
Funding from CCWA $7,500 - Fully supported In the name of the Estate of Les Matheson

Student Vacation Research Scholarships

Discovery of novel genes driving breast cancer cells resistance to anti-hormonal therapy

Recipient: Miss Audrey Kim
Research description: Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers in Australian women and the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. Particular breast cancers that have hormone receptors are usually treated with anti-hormonal therapy. IntClust2, a novel subtype of these cancers, has been found to resist treatment and has a high risk of recurring and spreading to other parts of the body. Preliminary data has shown the gene C11orf67 to be greatly expressed in IntClust2 subtypes and that this gene possibly controls cell survival and energy reprogramming via another protein involved in energy production, RABGAP1L. This research aims to map the interaction between C11orf67 and RABGAP1L to enable researchers to understand the resistant mechanism behind this subtype of breast cancer. This will guide the design of novel drugs to block this interaction or use existing anti-energy production drugs to block downstream cell communication and energy production.
Funding from CCWA $3,000 - Fully supported In the name of Momentum for Australia Ltd

Can genome editing restore the expression of the PTEN tumour suppressor gene and reduce cell proliferation in triple-negative breast cancer?

Recipient: Ms Fiona Nugent
Research description: Accounting for 15—25% of all breast cancers, triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a challenging disease. Its treatment-resistant nature necessitates the use of aggressive combination therapies, illustrating the need to model and explore alternative treatment strategies. The PTEN tumour suppressor gene is one of a number of genes responsible for producing proteins that act to prevent cells from growing and dividing too rapidly, causing cancers. Genetic mutations in PTEN result in an abnormal PTEN protein which has lost its tumour-preventing ability, and represents a key step in the development of many cancers, including TNBC. The aim of this project is to evaluate the effectiveness of a new genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which is used to modify the cancer genome and restore function to the PTEN tumour suppressor gene in TNBC cells.
Funding from CCWA $3,000

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