Cancer Council provides $1.5m for world-first research into breast cancer

Monday 17 March, 2014

Victorian women with breast cancer will have new opportunities to take part in a world-first clinical trial, following the announcement of a $1.5 million research fellowship by Cancer Council Victoria today.

Dr Sherene Loi, a medical oncologist and scientist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, will use the five-year Colebatch Clinical Research Fellowship to explore how new targeted therapies can be tailored to an individual’s breast cancer.  Her research will include an immunotherapy trial involving an anti-PD-1 antibody, which has already shown great promise in melanoma.

In this clinical trial, due to commence later this year, Dr Loi will focus on exploring modifiers of the immune response in breast cancer treatment for women with HER2-positive breast cancer.  Around one in five breast cancers, affecting 3000 Australian women each year, are characterised by overexpression of the HER2 protein — these cancers tend to be more aggressive than other tumours, and affect younger women.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said, if successful, Dr Loi’s clinical trial could be “practice changing” within the next five years.

“The results will be of great interest not only to breast cancer patients and clinicians in Australia, but also to those living around the world,” Mr Harper said.

Breast cancer remains the biggest killer of women aged 35-54 in Victoria, as well as nationally.  Each year, more than 14,000 Australian women are diagnosed with the disease.  In 2012, this included 3693 Victorians.

“To make serious inroads against breast cancer, we need a better understanding of its genetic make-up, how cancer genes can affect the cure rates of anti-breast cancer therapies, and how cancer genes alter over time.  Understanding this will allow us to anticipate changes, and potentially limit the ability of breast cancer to genetically evolve and evade treatment,” Dr Loi said.

“I hope my research will significantly benefit Australian women by providing them with access to effective new therapies, as well as identifying patients who are most likely to respond to these therapies.”

Since the start of her PhD studies in 2004, Dr Loi has had 60 original articles published, submitted or in press.  She has spent the past decade in Brussels at the Breast International Group clinical trial headquarters; returning to Melbourne last year to head the new Translational Breast Cancer Genomics Laboratory at Peter Mac.

Mr Harper said the fellowship was named in memory of Dr John Colebatch to mark his contribution to the Cancer Council and his work in the field of paediatrics.  Dr Colebatch pioneered the use of chemotherapy in Australia in the 1950s to treat and, ultimately, cure childhood leukaemia.

“Thanks to a generous bequest we are thrilled to be in a position to help fund world-leading research like Dr Loi’s and provide Victorian patients with the opportunity to access the latest in cutting-edge treatment to extend survival, reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy and, potentially, cure their cancer,” he said.

Dr Loi said she was continually motivated in her work by seeing the impact that breast cancer had on the lives of so many young women.

“We are in an exciting time in oncology history where we have, for the first time, the tools available that allow a high resolution, in-depth view of the cancer genome for an affordable price.  The opportunities for translation and personalised medicine within the next decade are immense and I am driven in my research to improve the lives of not only the women I treat, but women with breast cancer everywhere.”

Over the five-year fellowship, Dr Loi’s research will be broken into three stages:

  1. Enable real-time molecular characterisation of breast cancers to guide the selection of patients most suitable for clinical trials.
  2. Identify biomarkers of resistance and response to current therapies in breast cancer. Findings from these studies will advance biomarker development, increase potential for personalised medicine and inform future clinical trials; particular immune approaches.
  3. Investigate the genetic evolution from a primary tumour to metastatic disease by using a prospective longitudinal study of multiple tumour samples taken throughout the course of the disease within patients.