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.
Victoria has some of the world’s brightest and best cancer researchers. Thanks to the support of generous donations from Victorians, Cancer Council Victoria is proudly the biggest not-for-profit funder of cancer research.
“Every day, Cancer Council Victoria invests in internationally recognised research to give people living with cancer the best chance of surviving,” said Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria CEO.
Launched in 2006, the Venture Grants research program funds high-risk, high-reward research that is often not supported under conventional funding models. Previous rounds of Venture Grants have been successful incubators of early research ideas, allowing projects to develop from proof of concept into mature projects with the potential to change the way we treat and prevent cancer.
This year, four new research grants have been awarded under the Venture Grants program. This year’s recipients are:
Identification of ‘tags’ on tumour cells to activate immune cells against tumours
"In five years time, I aim for my research to be a step closer to the development of a new type of therapy for lung cancer patients," - A/Prof Asselin-Labat, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
Enhancing a form of immune-based therapy through new cell-engineering methods
"I believe that the immune system has tremendous potential for the treatment of cancer that is only just beginning to be realised," - A/Prof Paul Beavis, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
Improving neurosurgery through the in-depth molecular characterisation of glioma
"We aim to improve the maximal resection capability of low-grade glioma, which will play a significant role in patient survival and improved quality of life," - Dr Sarah Best, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
Does COVID-19 impact on cancer risk and the success of anti-cancer therapy?
"Our research project will inform whether infection of SARS-CoV-2 can affect the rate of development of common types of lymphoma, lung and colon cancers, and the effectiveness of common anti-cancer therapies for lung and colon cancer," - A/Prof Gemma Kelly, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
“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.”
The Venture Grants research program is 100% funded by generous Victorians. If you are interested in supporting our Venture Grants program, please contact us at (03) 9514 6159 or click here to donate online.