Exploring whether COVID-19 impacts cancer risk

Tuesday 15 November, 2022

Venture Grants: Supporting cancer researchers in their pursuit to find tomorrow’s lifesaving treatments

Melbourne researchers are exploring whether COVID-19 has any impact on cancer, in a world-first study that could bolster health policies and cancer screening protocols.

The research is one of four projects funded by Cancer Council Victoria’s $1.9 million Venture Grants research program that supports the brightest cancer researchers in Victoria.

The WEHI-led research is exploring whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, impacts the development of cancer, or the effectiveness of cancer therapies.

Project lead, A/Prof Gemma Kelly, said some infectious diseases, such as infection with papilloma viruses , are already known to increase cancer risk.

“We know inflammation can also impact cancer risk. Some people who have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), can be predisposed to develop colorectal cancer. However, we currently have no knowledge to determine whether this is the same for SARS-CoV-2,” A/Prof Kelly, Laboratory Head at WEHI’s Blood Cells and Blood Cancer Division, said.

“In the next two years, we want to be able to ascertain if COVID-19 impacts cancer risk for people who are predisposed to developing cancer. This is critical given early intervention can often improve a cancer patient’s survival rates,” she said.

To do this, Gemma Kelly’s team will study how cancers behave in the setting of COVID-19 and examine the impact SARS-CoV2 infections may have on the effectiveness of cancer therapies that rely on the immune system to fight cancers. 

The team will focus on cancer models of lymphoma, lung cancer, and colon cancer to assess their response when infected with COVID-19 and how they behave with different anti-cancer therapies.  

Over the past three years, COVID-19 has infected more than 620 million people and killed 6.5 million people globally.

A/Prof Kelly said with SARS-CoV-2 continuing to circulate in the community, being able to develop strategies to reduce any impact that COVID-19 might exert on cancer risk would protect some of the most vulnerable community members.

“Our research results will discover crucial answers to these many unknowns, which can then be leveraged to generate unique insights to guide public health policies and improve patient outcomes.

Cancer Council Victoria’s additional Venture Grant recipients are:

  • WEHI researchers aim to understand glioma biology at the brain tumour interface to increase the extent of safe extraction.
  • WEHI, along with Monash University, researchers will also try to understand how killer tumour tags can interact with the immune system. They will try to devise a therapy that will activate immune cells to recognise and kill tumour cells efficiently.
  • Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre researchers aim to engineer immune cells to secrete proteins that activate anti-tumour immunity specifically at the tumour site.

Cancer Council Victoria’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Todd Harper AM, said that Victoria has some of the world's brightest and best cancer researchers.

“Every day, Cancer Council Victoria invests in internationally recognised research to give people living with cancer the best chance of surviving,” Mr Harper said.

“Our Venture Grants help give Victorian researchers the chance to be bold and courageous in their pursuit to find tomorrow’s lifesaving treatments and early diagnosis.

“We have supported a number of fundamental research breakthroughs in our history, and we hope these might be pivotal in the next ground-breaking cancer advance,” Mr Harper added.  

“We hope they will be pivotal in the next ground-breaking cancer research.”

CCV relies on donations to fund cancer research and if someone is interested in supporting our Venture Grant program, please contact us at (03) 9514 6159 or philanthropy@cancer.org.au to discuss.