Shrinking cancer - Drug trial offers hope of treating deadly mesothelioma

A/Prof Tom John

A new drug developed in Melbourne can shrink tumours in the laboratory.

Plans are now under way for human trials to treat mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of this lethal cancer, for which five-year survival rates are at less than 10 per cent.

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute senior clinical research fellow A/Prof Tom John said the drug was an antibody drug conjugate which binds to a target on the surface of the cancer cell and releases little packets of chemotherapy.

Unlike traditional treatments that kill both good and bad cells, this treatment is designed to kill only the bad.

“In mice models the tumours shrank and if we stopped the treatment they grew back,” Prof John said.

The team, which includes Prof Andrew Scott, A/Prof Hui Gan, and Dr Puey Ling Chia, aims to begin human trials this year.

Unlike many treatments being developed, the drug has already been shown to be safe in humans with brain cancer.

The discovery that mesothelioma expressed the same molecule addressed by the brain cancer drug was a result of hard work, lateral thinking and some serendipity.

After cataloguing mesothelioma tissue samples, creating a database and growing human cancers in mice, Prof John decided to see if the tumours expressed the same molecule his colleagues in the adjacent lab were working on.

“Lo and behold, they did,” he said. “It’s a highly-expressed target.” Trial results remain confidential until published, but the team is cautiously optimistic about the drug’s potential.

Prof John, an oncologist at Austin Health, said most mesothelioma patients had a prognosis of less than 12 months, so there was an urgent need to find better treatments.

The Cancer Council Victoria has awarded two research grants totalling $700,000, one to the team from ONJRI, and another to Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

The money was generously donated by the late Lyall Watts, who died from mesothelioma, and his family.

Article reprinted with permission from the Herald Sun 13/03/2017

“It genuinely is a game-changer”: A Story of Survival

An incredible story of survival and recovery, made possible thanks to breakthrough cancer research.

Steven Jones-Evans had been given a terminal diagnosis shortly before he became a patient at the ONJ Centre. His bladder cancer had spread throughout his body, and a series of oncologists had told him that there was nothing that could be done. He had between three and twelve months to live.

But on becoming a patient of Associate Professor Andrew Weickhardt, a clinician researcher and medical oncologist at the ONJ Centre, Steven was prescribed Keytruda. This is an immunotherapy drug that is currently only funded in Australian public hospitals to treat melanoma. But A/Prof Weickhardt had reason to believe it would work for Steven.

Immunotherapy drugs, such as Keytruda, work by helping the body’s immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. Our bodies often have the ability to defeat cancer in the same way that they fight infection, but tumour cells are able to evade the immune system. These new treatments make it harder for the cancer cells to hide.

Steven’s treatment worked; his body attacked the cancer cells and left his healthy cells intact. In a number of months, his scan showed no evidence of cancer.  Indeed 12 months after having a break from treatment his scan still shows no evidence of active cancer.

Prof Jonathan Cebon, head of the Cancer Immunobiology Laboratory at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, has said in reference to immunotherapy that “nothing has happened, in my view, in the history of cancer medicine, which equals this in terms of excitement”.

This excitement is not lost on Steven. His story of survival has shown that there is potential for immunotherapy drugs to be used to treat a variety of cancers, not just melanoma. Trials are currently ongoing to investigate this at the ONJ Centre.

New immunotherapy treatments, developed and tested by researchers such as those at the ONJ Centre, often have fewer harmful side effects than chemotherapy or radiation therapy and many of them can be personalised to the individual. These treatments, which give hope to those who need it most, are only made possible by breakthrough research, funded in part by your ongoing support.

Steven’s story of recovery was so incredible that it was featured in an article by Jane Cadzow for the Good Weekend.

Read more about Steven and Andrew’s story.

Source: ‘Fight Club’, Sydney Morning Herald, by Jane Cadzow, 20 August 2016

Australian Government prioritises translational research

The announcement of the Australian Government's Medical Research Future Fund strategic priorities has been celebrated by the research community. The MRFF objectives align remarkably well to the goals of the ONJCRI.

Research Institutes around Australia have eagerly awaited the announcement of the strategic priorities of the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), since the Fund Bill was passed in Parliament in August 2015.

The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is a $20 billion vehicle for investment in health and medical research. It represents the single largest boost to research funding in Australia’s history. The MRFF is expected to disburse around $1 billion annually, beginning in 2021, effectively doubling the Australian Government’s direct investment in health and medical research and innovation.

Last week, the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP and the Health and Aged Care Minster, the Hon Sussan Ley MP outlined the strategic priorities of the MRFF at the annual dinner of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes in Canberra.

The announcement of strategic priorities is being celebrated widely by the research community. On behalf of the member Research Institutes, AAMRI Board Member and President Elect Professor Tony Cunningham AO congratulated the Government for their commitment to this nation-shaping fund.

He said, “This is an historic day, and couldn’t have come at a better time. This will deliver renewed confidence to scientists, knowing that within the decade we will have a doubling of funding for medical research via a safe-guarded future fund. It will ensure we retain the very best and brightest researchers here.”

Whilst the MRFF strategy does not identify specific health issues as targets for investment, Scientific Director of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), Prof Matthias Ernst is confident the objectives of the MRFF align remarkably well with the goals of the Institute.

In particular, the Fund will look to invest in supporting the capacity for researchers and clinicians to collaborate in a translational research environment and maximise opportunities for the translation of research by engaging with consumers.

“This focus is critical to ensure discoveries made in the laboratory can rapidly improve patient health outcomes in the clinic,” said Prof Ernst.

Prof Ernst said “The MRFF is a real boost to medical research that will catapult Australia into the 21st Century. We hope the community will be equally supportive of medical research. With greater funding, we can ensure a healthier future for all Australians.”

Related Releases

AAMRI: Celebrations as medical research priorities for MRFF announced by PM, Health Minister

Department of Health: Medical Research Future Fund

State-of-the-art ACRF cancer imaging centre celebrates third anniversary

Researchers are able to subject cancerous tumours to more detailed scrutiny and improve patient outcomes thanks to a world-class $2-million cancer imaging centre at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI).

Established through a grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF), the ACRF Centre for Translational Cancer Therapeutics and Imaging is celebrating its third anniversary as the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere to house state-of-the-art PET/MRI and SPECT/CT molecular imaging equipment. The Centre promotes internationally-competitive research to develop new insights into cancer biology, techniques to improve early cancer diagnoses, and the development of new cancer therapies.

The Centre has brought together researchers from ONJCRI, the University of Melbourne, Austin Health the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and the Melbourne Brain Centre in a multi-disciplinary approach. Accessible also to academic researchers from off campus, collaborators from La Trobe University, Baker IDI and Monash University have also utilised the Centre for preclinical imaging studies.

ACRF Centre Director and ONJCRI clinician researcher Prof Andrew Scott said “the ACRF Centre is at the cutting edge of translational cancer research, aiding trials of novel therapies under development and enhancing the prospects for cancer patients not only in Australia but worldwide.”

“Dramatic advances in research technologies over the last few years have allowed us to strive further for a future that gives patients and their families more sophisticated treatment options with fewer side effects.”

Grants from the ACRF support leading Australian initiatives, and help ensure our scientists remain at the forefront of global cancer research for the benefit of patients.

If you are interested in using this imaging equipment please send an email our Laboratory and Facilities Manager indicating which equipment you are considering for your research.

Lung cancer research receives $100k Freemasons donation

A/Prof Tom John

Freemasons Victoria (FMV) has donated $100,000 to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) - housed within the ONJ Centre - to help develop new lung cancer therapies.

Associate Professor Tom John, who leads the lung oncology clinic within the ONJ Centre and lung cancer drug trials explains, “Lung cancer isn’t often talked about when people look to fundraise for research, but this money is an important step in the journey to develop new and better therapies.”

Currently, lung cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in Australia and is the most common cause of cancer death; the current lung cancer five-year survival rate is only 14 per cent. Around 20 per cent of all people diagnosed with lung cancer in Australia are non-smokers.

“We are incredibly grateful to the Freemasons and to Amicus Lodge for this generous donation”, A/. Prof. John said. “Without funding and support, the Centre would be unable to undertake research and develop the breakthrough therapies that the ONJ Centre is renowned for”.

FMV member Tony Bucca requested the foundation raise money for lung cancer research conducted at the ONJ Centre where his wife, Mon, is currently receiving treatment. FMV’s Bruce Stockdale said the committee was completely supportive of Tony’s idea and “took half a second” to all agree.

FMV hosted a ‘Carnivale’ gala including auctions and raffles that raised a combined total of $56,000. The remaining $44,000 was donated by the Freemasons Foundation of Victoria.

An incredible contribution – thank you!

ONJCRI Chair receives honorary doctorate

La Trobe University Chancellor, Prof John Dewar (L) and ONJCRI Board Chair, the Hon John Brumby (R)

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute's Board Chair, the Hon John Brumby, has received an honorary doctorate recognising his leadership and achievements in the community.

Mr Brumby received a Doctorate of Letters from La Trobe University at a special graduation ceremony held on 31 May 2016.

The ONJCRI has a strong partnership with La Trobe University through the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, a joint research initiative.

Mr Brumby said he was excited to accept such a prestigious honour.

"I’m delighted to receive this award and look forward to continuing to work with La Trobe’s outstanding researchers to help find new treatments for the scourge of cancer and other pressing issues of our time," Mr Brumby said.

La Trobe Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar said the awarding of the honorary degree is 'a fitting tribute'.

"John Brumby has held the interests of Victoria and its people close to his heart for more than four decades – first as a teacher, then politician and now statesman. He has had a close relationship with La Trobe from his Bendigo background which continues today through his and our close relationship with the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute."

Good news for Australian medical research

The Federal Government has re-confirmed its commitment to the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) in its latest budget.

The announcement means the MRFF is on track to reach $20 billion by 2020-2021 with $61 million in earnings from the fund expected to be allocated to medical research and medical innovation in 2016-17, followed by a further $723 million in funding over the following three years.

This re-commitment is a highlight of the budget for the medical research sector. Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute Scientific Director Professor Matthias Ernst endorsed the Government on its affirmed commitment to the MRFF, highlighting the importance of the MRFF to help underpin the ability of medical research in Australia to reach its full potential.

“I hope that this additional funding will reassure Australia’s medical researchers that the future of their work and the impact on the wider community will continue,” said Prof Ernst.

“Is it important for the medical research sector to be able to draw on the steadily increasing contribution of the MRFF to ensure that Australia remains competitive and can continue to attract the best and brightest researchers. This will help medical research in Australia to produce the discoveries and innovation needed to develop more of the breakthrough therapies that save the lives of patients with cancer.”

While ONJCRI applauds this re-commitment from the Government, the funding and support from our donors remains critical to the institutes ability to grow and to more effectively translate discoveries from the laboratory bench into the clinic and deliver lasting outcomes for patients with cancer.

Young ONJCRI scientist receives prestigious Future Fellowship

Dr Erinna Lee

Dr Erinna Lee, a scientist based at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) has been awarded the prestigious Future Fellowship for her research into the process of cell survival and cell death. Her breakthrough research may hold the key to cancer treatment in the near future.

The Future Fellowships scheme supports research in areas of critical national importance by giving outstanding researchers incentives to conduct their research in Australia. This is the first time a researcher based at ONJCRI has been awarded a Future Fellowship.

Dr Lee is part of the Institute’s newest research group, Cell Death and Survival Laboratory and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine. The Laboratory studies the molecular pathways that control the fate of a cell.

Dr Lee explains: “Cancer cells are particularly interesting because apoptosis (cell death) sometimes doesn’t happen or autophagy (cell survival) happens at the wrong time.  For example, there can be too many ‘survival’ proteins in cancer cells, and as a result a tumour continues to grow.”

Researchers know that there are five ‘pro-survival’ proteins, but the challenge is learning which protein is present in each type of cancer.

“If we can identify which of these specific proteins are keeping the cancer cell alive, then we, and other scientists can develop and target drugs to trigger the natural process of cell death,” says Dr Lee.

“I’m privileged to be building on the discoveries of other scientists and I’m excited to be working within the ONJ Centre where we can continue to make breakthrough discoveries in cancer treatment and help patients.”

“It is a realistic hope that in the near future we will be able to take a cancer cell from a patient, profile it to identify the ‘pro-survival’ protein, and eradicate the cancer cell with the appropriate drug,” says Dr Lee.

Prof Andrew Scott appointed new Chair of Cancer Trials Australia

Prof Andrew Scott

The Cancer Trials Australia (CTA) Board has announced the appointment of Prof Andrew Scott as Chairperson. Prof Scott was appointed following the departure of former Chair Prof Mark Rosenthal.

Prof Scott is the Head of the Tumour Targeting Laboratory at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and is also the Scientific Director of PET, Department of Molecular Imaging and Therapy at Austin Health. He is one of Australia’s top clinician scientists with extensive experience in both pre-clinical and clinical drug development.

Prof Scott has served on the CTA Board since 2004, and is also involved in a variety of significant organisations related to medical research.

CTA CEO Marcus Clark says “Andrew’s experience with CTA over a long period together with his understanding of working with our key partners in drug development will provide the continuity of direction we have had with Mark.”

Prof Scott highlights the appointment as “an opportunity to enhance the outstanding reputation of oncology research and clinical trials in Australia. CTA provides invaluable linkages between researchers and clinicians, and facilitates clinical trials of the most promising new therapies for our cancer patients.”

The appointment is a significant recognition of Prof Scott’s contribution to the growth and development of this research field.


Cancer Trials Australia (CTA) is a not-for-profit organisation that regulates and manages cancer clinical trials, provides research governance and advisory services to its members, including research institutes, major hospitals such as the Alfred, the Austin and St Vincent’s, and other health organisations.