Melbourne researchers are discovering how muscle can unlock the potential of cancer treatments

Friday 4 November, 2022

Many people living with cancer experience a loss of muscle and strength that can impact their quality of life. Researchers in Melbourne are using a Cancer Council Victoria grant to understand how this loss of muscle affects cancer treatments, and how that process can potentially be reversed.

Leading the project is Associate Professor at Melbourne University, Paul Gregorevic.

“There are a lot of people [living with cancer] who look very frail, fatigued and are losing kilos of muscle and strength by the week…a condition we call cachexia,” A/Prof Gregorevic explains. “People can lose as much as 25 to 30% of their body weight.”

Drug companies trialling cancer treatments have attempted to stimulate pathways to make a muscle cells grow, but A/Prof Gregorevic’s research has shown that the connection between muscle fibres and nerves becomes compromised in people with cachexia, so these treatments will have little effect.

“If you try to switch on these growth pathways in a muscle that is no longer supplied by a nerve, they don't respond very well. They basically do not benefit from the treatment the way a fully innervated muscle would,” he said.

Because people with cachexia don’t respond well in these trials, they are deemed as ineligible for the treatment. But if the process of muscle denervation could be identified, there could be more treatment options available to them.

With the grant from the Cancer Council Victoria, A/Prof Gregorevic is trying to understand if the molecular process that leads to cachexia can be halted or even reversed. This work could potentially unlock millions of dollars of research into trials that were not deemed to be effective with people experiencing cachexia.

“If this looks good, does that mean that all of a sudden all of those other [treatments] that people were trying, that underperformed and then got put on the shelf as too hard, do they suddenly start working better? If we could be part of that, that would be an amazing legacy.”

A/Prof Gregorevic is thankful to the Cancer Council Victoria supporters who made the project possible. “As a researcher, anyone who supports Cancer Council Victoria is a hero to us. We will never forget that we get supported by people and that they expect us to deliver something.”

This project is part of Cancer Council Victoria’s Grants-in-Aid research program. Entirely funded by generous Victorians, this research program is designed to support innovative researchers with courageous ideas who would not be able to attract conventional funding.