Multimillion-dollar ‘TRACKER’ research project received funding boost from Australian Government this week to collect and analyse patient samples helping to address unmet clinical need for lung cancer patients

The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, has received multimillion-dollar funding to establish Australia’s first longitudinal biobank for advanced lung cancer, including $3 million funding from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Futures Fund and $1 million in kind support from project partners and supporters around Australia.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Australia, and advanced lung cancer is an area of unmet clinical need as 80% of patients present with inoperable metastatic disease. One of the greatest challenges in metastatic lung cancer is resistance to treatment, hence there is an urgent need to identify biomarkers to guide improved treatments for patients.

A first-of-its-kind in Australia, the Tissue Repository of Airway Cancers for Knowledge Expansion of Resistance (TRACKER) national project involves the longitudinal collection of tissue and blood samples from patients diagnosed with advanced lung cancer across their cancer journey to create a biobank that will help researchers to identify drivers of resistance to immunotherapy.

The TRACKER research project is led by Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute / La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine and was conceived and developed in a collaborative effort from clinician-scientists at Austin Health (Dr Tracy Leong and Dr Sagun Parakh), researchers at the ONJCRI (Associate Professor Andreas Behren, Head of the Tumour Immunology Laboratory, and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Ashleigh Poh), the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Dr Stephen Wong), the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) and people with lived experience of lung cancer.

Project lead, Associate Professor Andreas Behren from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, explained: “Our advanced lung cancer TRACKER biobank will allow researchers to track the progression of the disease at the molecular level, with the aim of understanding why current therapies are failing so many patients and suggesting new approaches.”

“Currently, without TRACKER, this research is not possible because there is a lack of sufficient samples and a lack of easily accessible technology for in-depth interrogation of small tissue specimens,” said A/Prof Behren.

TRACKER Project lead, A/Prof Andreas Behren

Most important for patients – TRACKER was co-designed by consumers with lived experience to ensure that it would be non-surgical and minimally invasive, from initial diagnosis and throughout their treatment, including cutting-edge techniques to obtain endobronchial ultrasound tumour samples, liquid biopsies, and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid.

As a consumer advocate with lived experience of lung cancer, Lisa Briggs, was instrumental in co-designing the sampling collection process and building the TRACKER consumer team who partnered with researchers and clinicians. She explained how the care of cancer patients is at the forefront of her mind and how crucial the TRACKER project will be for improving outcomes for lung cancer patients.

“Our tumour samples are precious to us – they contain valuable information to unlock answers about our care. Knowing they will be safely collected, stored, and utilised to help advance lung cancer research with minimal waste, gives me total satisfaction and fills me with hope. Hope that these answers will someday be found, but also hope that our care will be improved. As a wife and mum of 2 young children, everyday matters,” said Lisa Briggs.

“This research is critically important because I understand firsthand the lengths a patient has to go to, in order for a tissue sample to be taken.”

“No longer will we have to worry about silo-ed approaches to research. This National TRACKER biobank not only offers opportunities for collaboration, but also the ability to improve the quality of research by building on the number and type of samples available for use. As a patient this is an exciting prospect, as it enhances the potential for improving outcomes,” said Lisa Briggs.

Clinician-scientists Dr Tracy Leong, Director of Interventional Pulmonology, and Dr Sagun Parakh, Oncologist and Postdoctoral researcher from Austin Health are clinical leads of the TRACKER research project.

“TRACKER will provide a unique dataset that will enable us to transform our clinical approach to metastatic lung cancer and bring us one step closer to improving outcomes for lung cancer patients,” said Dr Leong.

Collection and research sites for TRACKER will include the Austin Hospital (VIC), Royal Melbourne Hospital (VIC), Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (VIC), Macquarie University Hospital (NSW), St Vincent’s Hospital (NSW), The Garvan Institute of Medical Research (NSW), Royal Adelaide Hospital (SA), Fiona Stanley Hospital (WA), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (WA), The Prince Charles Hospital (QLD) and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (QLD).