Mesothelioma is cancer caused primarily by exposure to asbestos. It’s a deadly disease and there has been no treatment breakthrough in 14 years. But thanks to generous philanthropic grant funding, promising research at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) may offer new treatment options.

Lyall Watts lost his life to mesothelioma in 2014. In the ten years since being diagnosed in 2004, Lyall became passionate about research into treatment and he desperately wanted researchers to find a cure. It was his one wish.

Before he died, Lyall set up a grant through Cancer Council Victoria to be used for research into mesothelioma treatment.  In Lyall’s honour, his partner Gary decided to continue the grant and name it the Lyall Watts Mesothelioma Research Grant. Lyall’s determination to find answers lives on through this grant.

A/Prof Tom John from ONJCRI was the inaugural recipient of this grant, and now together with Prof Andrew Scott, also from ONJCRI and Dr Peter James at Monash University, has received further funding from this grant to continue their work into targeted antibody therapies for malignant mesothelioma.

“We have a large tumour bank resource here at ONJCRI of patients who have donated their tissue,” says A/Prof John. “One of the things we have always wanted to do is put that resource together and use it to try to define markers within the tumour tissues that could predict response to particular treatments and identify new areas for further investigation.”

“The initial funding has allowed us to put together a resource that contains over 300 mesothelioma cases. It’s the biggest series in the world and has ended up being a really valuable resource.”

That value has already been proven with the discovery that EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor), a protein found on cancer cells, is very commonly found in mesothelioma tumour cells (about 70 – 80 per cent).

Prof Scott and his laboratory team at ONJCRI have discovered a way to target EGFR using antibody therapy.

“So far, this treatment in mice is proving to be very effective.  We’ve been able to show that if a tumour expresses EGFR and it’s treated with this targeted therapy, then the tumours shrink away,” says A/Prof John. “Mesothelioma doesn’t seem to have many targets so this actually looks like a very relevant and useful target.  Furthermore, trials have already been conducted at ONJCRI in other tumours that express EGFR.  We’re hoping to start recruiting patients to another clinical trial for this targeted therapy later this year.”