NHMRC grants focus on new cancer therapies research

We are delighted to confirm that two Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) researchers have been awarded over $4.5 million in funding for the next 5 years in the inaugural round of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Investigator Grant scheme, announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

This significant investment will allow the ONJCRI, as the La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine, to continue research into the use of imaging techniques for targeted treatments, and the development of novel anti-cancer therapies.

“As an Institute, we are committed to conducting research that we believe can have the greatest impact on the availability of new cancer treatments, and in turn improve outcomes for people impacted by cancer,” said Prof Ernst, Scientific Director, ONJCRI.

“Grant funding like this, is pivotal for our teams to continue to translate research into practical applications and treatments. It is also great recognition of the work being led by the Institute and our research partners.”

Find out more about our NHMRC Investigation Grant recipients and their projects:

Prof Andrew Scott - $2,640,000

TumourTargeting1-Portraits_smProf Scott’s research focuses on developing improved ways to detect cancer cells in the body through sophisticated imaging techniques, and creating new strategies for treating cancer with targeted therapies. This grant will fund work to discover and develop novel antibodies for treating cancer and extend these discoveries into clinical trials, and support the development of innovative imaging probes that will improve cancer patient management and therapeutics development.

Prof Scott’s successful application was rated in the highest category. Nationally, only seven applications from approximately 750 submissions (0.9%), scored in this highest category, illustrating his exemplary application and research.


Prof Matthias Ernst - $2,049,000

Matthias Ernst_smRecent progress in cancer treatment is based on the insight that cancer cells are not only surrounded by normal cells, but that these normal cells are corrupted and exploited by cancer cells for their own survival and protection from the immune system. This grant will allow Prof Ernst and his team to better understand the molecular mechanism by which cancer cells coerce normal cells and ultimately to identify molecular targets for the development of novel anti-cancer therapies.


Read the announcement by Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP

Community support boosts research technology

For researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), it is critical that they have access to the latest cutting-edge equipment in order to undertake their groundbreaking research.

Without certain pieces of technology, it can be difficult for them to carry out their work with the specific attention to detail that cancer research demands. This equipment is often very expensive however, so generous donations to the ONJCRI are therefore crucial in order to acquire this technology.

Three women who work at Scotch College recently set up a fundraising event in memory of loved ones lost to cancer. They raised $37,000 at their Girls Night Out event, all of which was donated to the ONJCRI. Now, the funds have been used to buy a cryostat; a vital piece of equipment for researchers in the Translational Breast Cancer Program.

The cryostat is a versatile instrument that allows researchers to cut ultrafine slices of frozen biological tissue, allowing researchers to examine samples in minute detail whilst preserving their quality.

Dr Normand Pouliot, head of the Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory, is working to identify biomarkers (such as particular proteins, DNA and RNA) that could help clinicians predict which patients are likely to see their disease recur or who could benefit from certain treatments.

“The presence of these biomarkers is commonly validated in ‘archival’ tumour tissues preserved in wax. However, tissues that are preserved in wax for long-term storage require treatment with harsh chemicals that affect the integrity of protein, DNA and RNA,” says Dr Pouliot.

“This often makes detection of these molecules very difficult and unreliable. The cryostat overcomes these limitations because it allows us to prepare slices of freshly frozen tissues without the use of these harsh chemicals and therefore enables us to detect biomarkers more easily and reliably.”

Being able to utilise the cryostat has provided a massive boost to Dr Pouliot’s research, and has also transformed the work of many of his ONJCRI colleagues.

“As research becomes more and more dependent on expensive technologies and equipment, every institute struggles to find funds to satisfy the demands to perform cutting-edge research. Community engagement is so important to us and these fundraising efforts are essential to our work. We really can’t thank our donors enough,” Dr Pouliot says.

The resounding success of the Girls Night Out fundraiser has spurred the organisers on to collaborate with the ONJCRI in hosting an event every two years.

Find out more about:
Dr Normand Pouliot
Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory

Repurposing existing drugs to treat gastric cancers

Over 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancers every year and 80 die from the disease each week.

With such hard hitting statistics, there is a very real urgency to develop new treatments for one of the nation’s most common cancers. Unfortunately, it often takes years for drugs to be made available after being discovered in the laboratory and the sad reality is that many patients can’t afford to wait this long.

Dr Ashwini Chand of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has published a paper this month through the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) that investigates a novel way of bypassing this lengthy development process. Her team in the Cancer Therapeutics Development Group is working to repurpose drugs already being used to treat other diseases for cancer therapy. Because these drugs have already passed clinical trial stage, they can hopefully be prescribed to cancer patients sooner.

“The concept of repurposing how an existing drug is used favours identifying drugs with greater tolerability in patients,” explains Dr Chand.

“An additional possible benefit for cancer patients and their families is that off-patent drugs are more easily accessible as treatments and are not as costly.”

Dr Chand’s paper evaluates the effectiveness of bazedoxifene, a drug clinically approved for the treatment of osteoporosis, in inhibiting the growth of gastrointestinal tumours.

Inflammatory cytokines are signaling molecules that promote the normal immune response of inflammation in the body, but which can also contribute to the progression and treatment resistance of tumours in the presence of cancer. Gastric tumours frequently arise and progress rapidly due to excessive signaling through gp130, the shared receptor for the interleukin (IL)6 family of inflammatory cytokines. Dr Chand’s findings show that bazedoxifene is able to mimic interactions between the gp130 receptors and IL6 cytokines, essentially tricking the receptors into binding with it and preventing them from interacting with the cytokines.

In this way, bazedoxifene prevents gastrointestinal tumours from growing and possibly progressing to an advanced cancer stage.

“These findings are significant as we have for the first time shown that a drug can block the IL6 signalling pathway,” says Dr Chand. “I am thankful for our collaborators, who assisted my team in utilising a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the IL6 signalling biology in cancer cells. We are hopeful that our future studies will allow us to decide which particular patients this drug will be most beneficial to as a cancer therapy.”

Dr Chand is excited about these findings as they offer immediate and tangible hope for people diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer.

“It is great to have discovered a treatment that may very soon be implemented in the clinic for cancer patients, especially since therapeutic doses have already been decided and any side-effects extensively tested on bone density and other physiological parameters.  The next step will be to work out the drug’s efficacy in patients with gastrointestinal cancer.”

Dr Chand’s group is also looking into repurposing drugs used for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Find out more about:
Dr Ashwini Chand
Cancer Therapeutics Development Group

Read the publication here

Scanning barcodes to stop breast cancer

Dr Delphine Merino and her team at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute are using a technique commonly found in the aisles of supermarkets to conduct cutting-edge cancer research.

Their work follows on from a paper Dr Merino co-authored which was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Her team at the Institute is using barcodes to identify, track and analyse the genetic properties of aggressive breast cancer cells that spread to other parts of the body or resist drug treatment.

Why barcodes?

Barcodes were introduced by retailers in the 1970s to allow them to identify and track millions of unique products. Those small boxes of black and white parallel lines are now such a ubiquitous part of life we barely notice them.

In recent years, medical research has adopted the same technique to solve the challenge of categorising and tracking millions of unique human cells.

With genetic barcoding, each individual cell is labelled with a unique nucleic acid sequence – a barcode – which allows the cell to be tracked as it moves around a body.

Using barcodes to tag cancer cells

The technique of genetic barcoding has recently been applied to cancer research, and Dr Merino is leading the way in using barcodes to identify drugs that may prevent cancer cells from spreading or becoming resistant to standard treatment.

“Metastasis - the spread of cancer cells beyond their primary site - is the primary cause of death of breast cancer patients,” explains Dr Merino.

“Spreading cells are often biologically different than the cells in the original tumour, so by labelling all the cells in a tumour we can then see how each tumour cell responds in the presence of various drug treatments.”

Barcodes show potential for targeted breast cancer treatments

Delphine co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Communications, which she produced with Dr Salin Naik, Prof Jane Visvader and Prof Geoffrey Lindeman at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Their study shows that the barcoding technique can be used to track how breast cancer cells spread to different parts of the body.

The researchers found that only a few cells were responsible for the metastasis of a tumour and these cells were the ‘seeds’ causing new tumour growth.

The research is an important step in understanding how cancer cells spread from the breast to other organs.

Understanding breast cancer one cell at a time

For Dr Merino, her work with cellular barcodes is part of a broader mission to understand how breast cancer tumours spread.

Her team at the Institute is now analysing the genetic makeup of the cells identified as the ‘seeds’ for new tumours.

“There is hope for new treatments just by understanding our enemies better,” she says.

“Barcoding has given us a tool to focus our efforts on the specific cells that caused metastatic tumours. It is helping us understand which cells we need to target, so we can improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of this terrible disease.”

Find out more about:
Dr Delphine Merino
Translational Breast Cancer Program 
Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory

Read the publication in Nature Communications

Love Your Sister and ONJCRI partnership focuses on the future of personalised medicine

While we often hear in the media that the survival rate of women diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing, unfortunately the survival rate for women with secondary breast cancer – also known as metastatic breast cancer - paints a very different picture.

Love Your Sister and Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) are now working together to try and change this statistic with the help of a dedicated Research Assistant who will work with ONJCRI researchers Dr Belinda Yeo  and Dr Delphine Merino  - two of Australia’s leading breast cancer research experts.

Dr Yeo is a medical oncologist who treats breast cancer patients. Dr Merino runs a breast cancer lab at ONJCRI that specifically deals with the cancer cells responsible for forming metastatic cancers. And while they make a great team, this new Research Assistant will bridge a gap to turn their ultimate goal of giving women with metastatic breast cancer alternative treatment options.

The initial 3 years study which will be conducted onsite at ONJCRI will see the Research Assistant obtain necessary consent from patients who are willing to donate their tumour sample to research, transport the precious samples to the laboratory and process it through the ONJCRI Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory part of the  ONJCRI Translational Breast Cancer Program led by renowned breast cancer researcher Professor Robin Anderson

Lab testing will consist of examining the genetic makeup of every single cell present in a given sample, finding its weaknesses and accordingly, testing the efficacy of the most suitable drugs for this patient’s tumour.

If this initial study proves successful, the next phase - and ultimately the new treatment approach - would take this process a step further and these results could help inform decisions on which drug may be best to attach to the women’s particular cancer. The oncologist can then consider the recommended drug as part of their treatment plan for the patient.

This is an exciting prospect given that over 18,000 Australian women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, 1/3 of which will also have metastatic breast cancer later in their life.

The Love Your Sister partnership ensures that ONJCRI can now have a full time Research Assistant whose sole focus is to potentially change the cancer story for over 3,000 Australian women currently dying of metastatic breast cancer each year.

We are fighting cancer - Together.

Visit Love Your Sister to find out more, to support this partnership and to show cancer who is boss.

Find out more:

 ONJCRI Translational Breast Cancer Program

ONJCRI Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory

Love Your Sister

ACRF Award $2 Million To ONJCRI

The ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment is a state of the art imaging centre to understand how and why tumours corrupt the normal cells of their immediate environment.

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation awarded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute $2million to establish this centre.  The centre enables ONJCRI and La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science to extend its ground- breaking work and accelerate the transition of laboratory results into cancer treatments that will benefit all Australian Cancer patients.

Prof Matthias Ernst, Scientific Director of ONJCRI and Head of the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine says:

“This new centre will allow us to look at the environment in which cancer cells and tumours grow, giving us the information we need to develop effective, targeted antic-cancer therapies”

To find out more about the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, please visit www.acrf.com.au

Ian Potter Foundation - Support of the ONJCRI

In 2015 The Ian Potter Foundation awarded a grant of $450,000 to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute to partially fund the purchase of a Vectra System.

This equipment allows researchers to visualise multiple cell types in a single tumour and therefore characterise normal and abnormal cells within a samples.  It has allowed us to comprehensively analyse a patient's cancer and immune make-up to identify biomarkers of treatment response. This informs the selection of patients for clinical trials with immune therapeutics. This equipment has quickly become a highly sought after resource by our research teams and collaborators, which prompted a submission to the Ian Potter Foundation in support of the automation equipment to improve the sample processing time and allow a higher throughout put of use by researchers.

The purchase of the Vectra system in 2015 was also supported with funding from ONJCRI, La Trobe University, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Austin Health.

In September 2018 the ONJCRI, with co-funding support from La Trobe University, and support of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre - VCCC and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, was awarded a further grant to support the purchase of the automation equipment. 

Along with these supporting research institutes, the equipment will support all member institutes of the Victorian VCCC including the PDI, Austin health and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.  The addition of this vital equipment to the ONJCRI is an illustration of the collaborative work of researchers from Melbourne cancer research teams.

The grants, each lead by Dr Andreas Behren, Head of the Tumour Immunology Laboratory, together provide a platform of technology that is at the forefront of cancer patient sample analysis.  As a member of the VCCC, this equipment will enhance the VCCCs capacity to perform world‐class medical research and further strengthen and enhance cross‐institutional collaboration including academic‐industry and hospital‐academic cross‐collaborations.

The ONJCRI welcomes researchers wishing to use the equipment in their research. To find out more please contact Dr Andreas Behren: andreas.behren@onjcri.org.au

ONJCRI plays key role in ovarian cancer breakthrough

Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute

Institute researcher A/Prof Alexander Dobrovic has played a key role in a study that reveals a way to identify patients better suited to certain types of ovarian cancer care.

The study, published today in Nature Communications, adds to a growing and vital ‘checklist’ helping researchers to match ovarian cancer patients with the right therapy for their cancer.

A/Prof Dobrovic’s lab worked on the study with Prof Clare Scott, Dr Matthew Wakefield, Dr Olga Kondrashova and Dr Monique Topp from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

A/Prof Dobrovic said that targeted treatment is crucial for patient survival rates.

“Ovarian cancer survival rates have not improved significantly in the past thirty years,” he said.

“Our study is an important breakthrough in furthering more personalised care and better matching patients with the right care for their cancer.”

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute Scientific Director, Prof Matthias Ernst said the study demonstrates the important role the Institute plays in the wider research community.

“The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute works closely with partners like Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and this type of collaboration is vital in solving the complex challenge posed by ovarian cancer.”

The study promises to benefit women with ovarian cancer who are often treated with drugs called PARP inhibitors. Unfortunately, not all patients respond to the treatment, and until now no one knew why. The study identifies the subtle epigenetic differences between patients who respond to treatment with PARP inhibitors, and those who do not. This means doctors will be able to better match patients with the right care for their cancer, and spare them treatment with PARP inhibitor drugs if they won’t work. A/Prof Dobrovic’s studies were funded by the National Breast Cancer Foundation as it is likely that this work can be extended to breast cancer patients as well. This is being tested in a Cancer Australia funded clinical trial called EMBRACE.

Rare cancer trial funding boost

A clinical trial with immune-stimulating drugs will be available for the first time to rare cancer patients living in regional and rural areas through the expansion of a successful clinical trial.

Led by clinician scientists at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) - also known as the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine - the trial uses highly effective combination cancer immunotherapy to treat patients with rare gastrointestinal, neuroendocrine and gynaecological cancers.

On the eve of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Walk Research Run at La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced $1million funding to extend the trial in 2019. Treatment will be available to an additional 60 patients including those from regional and rural areas.

ONJCRI Medical Director, Prof Jonathan Cebon, said the funding would benefit a group of patients for whom there are few effective drugs.

“Australians with rare cancers have limited access to effective treatments due to the lack of understanding of how their cancers will respond to treatment and they are often excluded from large clinical trials,” Prof Cebon said.

“This generous funding from the Australian government will not only result in more rare cancer patients being treated in the existing metropolitan sites, but will also enable us to take our trial to a regional cancer centre.

Working in partnership with Rare Cancers Australia and BMS Ltd, clinicians have already treated 50 patients at three metropolitan centres with the combination immunotherapy, which activates patients’ immune systems to target their cancer.

Prof Cebon said the early responses have been very promising, however not everyone benefits.

“A suite of laboratory tests are also under development which will help guide clinicians to identify those who are most likely respond to treatment, and more importantly, who will not. This means valuable time will not lost for patients by pursuing ineffective treatments.”

Earlier this week, Minister Hunt awarded $1.6 million to ONJRCI and La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine clinician scientist, A/Prof Hui Gan, for a national trial aimed at improving treatment of patients with low survival cancers, including gastrointestinal, thoracic and triple negative breast cancers.

A/Prof Gan and his colleague, Prof Andrew Scott, have pioneered the development of an antibody that they will use to treat patients with cancers for which the five-year survival rates are less than 50 per cent. Importantly this antibody only interacts with a patient’s cancer cells, ensuring normal cells are not affected.

La Trobe Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar said La Trobe welcomed the Minister’s announcements.

“The support of the Federal Government allows our scientists to continue to conduct ground-breaking research with the potential to save so many lives.

“We are especially happy to see that funding has been provided not just for patients living in the city, but also in regional areas, where La Trobe University has a strong presence.”


ONJCRI granted $10M for Centre of Research Excellence

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has been granted $10 million by the Victorian Government to establish a Centre of Research Excellence with a focus on brain cancer.

The funding is part of an $18 million package for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre (ONJ Centre). It was announced yesterday by Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Health Jill Hennessy.

The funding will fast-track more research and better treatments. It will enable more Victorian cancer patients to access the world’s best ‘game-changing’ technology, to target and treat the disease.

As well as establishing a Centre of Research Excellence, the $10 million grant for the Institute will assist with the infrastructure and support that researchers need to continue their ground-breaking work fighting cancer.

Olivia Newton-John was at Parliament House in Melbourne for the announcement.

“I am overwhelmed, and grateful for the Victorian Government’s investment in the ONJ Centre. This funding will allow the centre to deliver the very best treatments, wellness programs and complimentary therapies, and breakthrough research, all under one roof. I am incredibly proud of the centre and the crucial work it carries out. Every day we take steps to win over cancer and today we have taken a massive leap.”