Dr Ashleigh Poh, a postdoctoral researcher in the ONJCRI’s Cancer and Inflammation Laboratory has recently secured funding to investigate how rogue immune cells that normally allow cancer to survive can be transformed to fight ovarian cancer.

In Australia over 1700 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year. That’s more than 4 per day. There is no early detection and the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer has not improved in 40 years.

Dr Ashleigh Poh and her colleagues are working on changing that after sharing in $550,000 from the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF) to continue their work in fighting the disease.

This World Ovarian Cancer Day marks a 14-year partnership between the OCRF and Australian fashion brand Witchery. The campaign, known as ‘White Shirt Day,’ encourages Australian’s to buy a white shirt to support ovarian cancer research, with 100 per cent of proceeds going to the OCRF to fund projects like Ashleigh’s.

“Our research is trying to develop more effective therapies for high grade serous ovarian cancer, which is the most common and most aggressive type of ovarian cancer. Most women who are diagnosed with high grade serous ovarian cancer respond very poorly or not at all to existing drugs and therapies,” says Dr Poh.

The project which is co-led by Professor Matthias Ernst, Director of the ONJCRI and Dr Liz Christie from the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre focuses on targeting a protein known as HCK. HCK is found in a type of immune cell known as a macrophage.

“Under normal situations, macrophages play an important role in immunity against disease, as well as clearing dead cells and debris. However, macrophages can also be ‘corrupted’ or ‘hijacked’ by cancer cells to help tumors grow and remain undetected by the immune system.”

The research team has shown macrophages that have more HCK activity are better at supporting tumour growth and spread. In contrast, drugs that stop HCK activity in macrophages are able to slow the growth and spread of many different tumor types in pre-clinical models, including high-grade serous ovarian cancer.

“This suggests that targeting HCK in combination with existing therapies could potentially improve treatment outcomes across a broad range of cancers including ovarian cancer.”

The work undertaken at the ONJCRI has the potential to help thousands of women around the world.

“Our research aims to develop better treatment options for ovarian cancer patients, with the goal of extending their lives and giving them more time with their family instead of being in and out of hospital. We are grateful to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation and the Witchery White Shirt Campaign for their generous support of our research.”