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Victoria’s brightest push cancer research boundaries

Tuesday 20 January, 2015

Visionary research backed by Cancer Council Victoria donors

Four Victorian research teams with ideas described as “visionary” have begun work to find new treatments for cancer types that are aggressive, difficult to treat or incurable thanks to financial backing from Cancer Council Victoria donors.

In all, 89 bold research teams with big ideas applied for funding under the Cancer Council’s $3 million Venture Grants Scheme – the only one of its kind in Australia. After a rigorous three-month application process* the projects were whittled down to four successful ones to:

  1. Use an exciting new technology to find specific ‘tumour suppressor’ genes that stop cancer from developing, led by Professor Andreas Strasser at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
  2. Develop treatments to try to eradicate leukaemia stem cells, which are at the root of the blood cancer, to assist those diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease, led by Associate Professor Mark Dawson at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac).
  3. Discover new proteins and pathways that allow for the growth and survival of cells within the incurable blood disease known as multiple myeloma in order to find new treatments, led by Professor Ricky Johnstone at Peter Mac.
  4. Identify ways to treat a highly aggressive subtype of breast cancer, which accounts for approximately 2000 diagnoses in Australia each year, by testing the hypothesis that there are different classes within the subtype requiring personalised treatment, led by Professor Roger Daly at Monash University.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said each of the ambitious projects was unlikely to receive funding under traditional means, and instead were being entirely donor funded.

“We put a call out to the Victorian cancer research community on behalf of our donors for game changing research – and were thrilled to receive 89 applications,” Mr Harper said.

“In order to make true research breakthroughs we have to encourage our researchers to take risks. Each of these projects carries a managed risk but they are also visionary, feasible and come with a potentially high reward.”

Associate Professor Dawson described the projects as the “type of blue sky research that no one else in Australia is likely to fund”.

His team, comprising of researchers at Peter Mac and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, will focus on acute myeloid leukaemia - an aggressive blood cancer that only one in four people survive1. They will start by using a unique method of growing large quantities of leukaemia stem cells in order to study which parts of those cells sustain them.

"Much like an unwanted shrub, most cancer therapies largely result in the pruning of the shrub - so it regrows because the roots that sustain it are unaffected," Associate Professor Dawson said.

"We will use cutting-edge genetic technologies to assess whether individual epigenetic regulators affect the survival of these leukaemia stem cells and, in turn, will use this information to design drugs to eradicate them."

At Monash, Professor Daly will lead a multi-disciplinary team charged with identifying new ways to treat "triple negative breast cancer" (TNBC) - a highly aggressive subtype of the disease that approximately 2000 Australian women are diagnosed with each year.

"While it's becoming increasingly evident that not all TNBCs are the same we don't understand the molecular basis of these differences," Professor Daly said. "We want to figure out ways of personalising treatment to each patient by determining exactly how these cancers differ on a molecular level."

Each year, almost 15002 Australians are diagnosed with multiple myeloma (MM) - an incurable blood disease. Using state-of-the-art gene knockdown technologies, Professor Johnstone and his team will screen 200 proteins within a MM cell to identify which are needed for the cell's growth and survival. In turn, they hope to partner with chemists or other drug developers to develop new medication for laboratory testing.

The fourth project, headed by Professor Strasser at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, will expand basic knowledge around how tumours develop.

"One of the reasons cancer mostly occurs in older people is that our bodies possess so-called ‘tumour suppressive' processes that prevent malignant tumours from developing," Professor Strasser said.

"We have a basic understanding of how tumour suppressive processes work, and have identified some tumour suppressors in cancers, but until recently there was no efficient way to identify all the genes that protect us from developing cancers. A member of our team was the first in Australia to start using an exciting new technology that is ideally suited to discovering these tumour suppressors. Carrying out screening like this in research can be likened to a fishing expedition: a long shot, but potentially enormously rewarding if you catch something."

Mark and Amanda Cubit are among the Cancer Council donors who support the Venture Grants Scheme. As a philanthropist, Mr Cubit said he looks for causes or projects to fund that are a good investment, well run and "where there is an identified need rather than to where big funds are already being directed".

“The Venture Grants Scheme is run by a professional team and co-ordinated by a passionate organisation – and is outside the mainstream of causes that people often fund. Cancer Council keeps us well up to date with how the research is developing, and that research is being conducted by some of the smartest individuals in Australia.”

Cancer Council’s Venture Grants Scheme will recognise this year’s successful researchers as Metcalf Venture Grants recipients to honour the late Professor Don Metcalf AC’s commitment to and achievements in cancer research. Professor Metcalf was Cancer Council’s Carden Fellow for 60 years.

Anyone interested in supporting the Venture Grants Scheme can contact Anthony North on (03) 9514 6513 or

*The Venture Grants Scheme Committee, led by Professor Joe Trapani of Peter Mac, managed the selection of applications on behalf of the Board of Cancer Council Victoria. Other committee members were: Professor Melissa Southey of the University of Melbourne, Professor Tony Tiganis of Monash University, Professor Andrew Scott of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Professor Miles Prince of Peter MacCallum, Professor Warren Alexander of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Dr Jayesh Desai of Royal Melbourne Hospital and Professor Peter Fuller of MIMR-PHI Institute. 

1. Victorian Cancer Registry 2008-2012 data puts five-year relative survival for those diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia at 26 per cent.

2. In 2010, there were 1467 new cases of MM in Australia according to the Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality Books – Myeloma for Australia.