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Research begins to uncover bowel cancer link in families as part of $3.8 million in new cancer funding

Monday 8 March, 2021

A study aiming to find the genetic link between familial bowel cancers that could eventually uncover who is at risk and needs targeted bowel screening is one of 13 research projects announced today that will share in $3.8 million from Cancer Council Victoria.

The University of Melbourne project aims to use a mathematical algorithm to identify which bowel tumours have a familial link. The team will then study these tumours for a genetic profile, or ‘fingerprint’, which can identify the cause of the tumour – whether they be related to inherited, environmental, or bacterial causes.

The research funding is part of Cancer Council Victoria’s Grants-in-Aid program that funds high-quality research projects into the treatment, causes, detection and prevention of all cancers. Also announced today as part of the program are two postdoctoral fellowships to support promising researchers of the future.

Professor Ingrid Winship, chief investigator of the University of Melbourne research team, said the overarching aim of the project is to reduce the burden of bowel cancer disease, both in terms of life lost and quality of life lost.

“Bowel cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in Australia, yet it is one of the most preventable cancers. If we can identify who is at risk of developing bowel cancer and target them for screening, we can prevent many cancers and save lives, especially in young people. Doctors talk a lot these days about ‘targeted therapies’ to treat cancers; what we are trying to achieve here is targeted screening and precision prevention.”

Professor Winship said that up to 35% of bowel cancers are thought to be caused by genetic risk factors, yet currently only 5-10% of cases can be identified as such.

“There is currently a significant problem for patients and families, as well as clinicians, who are unable to receive an explanation for the cause of bowel cancer in their family. We hope to close the gap between explained and unexplained cases.”

It was the experience of mother, bowel cancer survivor and one of the consumer investigators on the research project, Emma Barrance, that brought into focus the need to find this link for researchers.

“We are passionate about community consultation in our research, right from the beginning of our projects. We have three consumer investigators leading the project - Emma, along with Natalie Diepenhorst and Julie Toner - who inform our research and help us translate it to the real world,” Professor Winship said.

“In speaking to Emma about what was important to her as a young onset bowel cancer patient, she was concerned about whether her son was at risk of developing the disease too, informing the focus of our study.”

Emma said she looks forward to being involved in the research project, hoping to make a real difference for her son and those who will come after her.

“I value the opportunity to actively engage in research so that in the future people with a bowel cancer diagnoses can better understand if their children are more susceptible to developing the disease.”

“Being a part of a team that is working towards something that will one day help stop other young people and families suffer through cancer is a great feeling, a wonderful place to put some of my energy while living with advanced disease.”

Other successful Grants-in-Aid projects include:

  • A study aiming to improve the rate of response of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL and diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL) to immunotherapy, and explore whether new approaches can be applied to other types of cancer that respond poorly to CAR T-cell immunotherapy.
  • Research to find additional genetic causes of ovarian cancer so that people with ovaries can be provided with accurate and personalised risk assessment. 
  • A project aiming to identify those hormone receptor-positive HER2-negative breast cancers that are anticipated to have a good response to pre-operative drug therapy and those less likely to have a good response, while also aiming to identify novel molecular targets for treatment that could potentially improve outcomes.

More than $57 million in grants has been awarded by Cancer Council to external researchers in Victoria over the past decade said Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper, leading to many tangible breakthroughs.

“The projects announced today are varied in their goals, however they all have the potential to significantly impact how we detect and treat different forms of cancer,” Mr Harper said.

“Leading scientists from Victoria’s cancer and medical research bodies helped to identify these high-quality research projects, which are entirely funded by Cancer Council donors and highlight just how important they are in helping us work towards the next cancer breakthrough.”

“As the largest non-government funder of cancer research in Victoria, we have been awarding fellowships and grants to the very best and brightest cancer researchers for more than 60 years and we are proud to be awarding 13 more grants to similarly highly-regarded researchers today.”

View the successful 2021 Grants-in-Aid projects