Researcher Spotlight February: Our 2018 Researchers

Meet some of our 2018 Researchers

Late last year, Cure Cancer Australia were delighted to announce support of 19 grant recipients for 2018. Here, we introduce you to some of them…

 

Dr Lauren Aoude, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute:

Tailored therapies for melanoma patients

 
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Lauren’s vision is simple: she hopes her Cure Cancer Australia-funded work will help melanoma patients receive the best-possible, most successful treatment for their disease.

“Melanoma presents in different ways and different types of therapy suit different situations,” explains Lauren. “Currently, it’s not always clear which treatments will work for particular types of tumours.”

Lauren’s project aims to make this clearer by combining imaging including PET and CT scans with cutting-edge genomics to find a link between the two. The project has the potential to help reduce treatment failure, morbidity and the costs associated with the treatment of metastatic melanoma.

Early indications are promising. Already Lauren’s work on predisposition to melanoma has led to the identification of genes that contribute to susceptibility in some families. “If my wildest dreams were to come true my research would help identify the best-possible treatment for patients so that the treatment success rate is much higher than it is currently.”

“To have the support of Cure Cancer Australia is very exciting. I believe the project is an important body of work that could change the way melanoma patients are treated.”

Lauren is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation

 

Dr Kelly Brooks, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Gene mutations key to beating eye cancer

 
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Uveal melanoma is the most common eye cancer, and the second most common type of melanoma. In about half of patients, it spreads beyond the eye. When this happens, there are currently no effective treatments.

Kelly now seeks to understand how the function of genes in uveal melanoma is altered by common mutations, with the goal of identifying which alterations are important to the survival and growth of the cancer cells.

A gene known as PLCB4 was recently shown to be mutated in uveal melanoma and appears to have an important role in the disease. Understanding this role will allow Kelly to identify new drug targets.

Kelly was struck by how poorly understood uveal melanoma is during her time at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. “No treatments have been specifically developed for it, nor does it respond well to treatments for the more common skin melanomas,” Kelly says. As a result of this, Kelly was involved in a successful grant bid leading to the formation of the first European consortium dedicated to the study of the disease.

 

Dr Nick Fletcher, University of Queensland

Treating breast cancer with nanotechnology

 
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Nick works in the fascinating field of nanotechnology, aiming to develop new, targeted treatments for triple-negative breast cancer - an aggressive subset of breast cancer that is very difficult to treat using conventional approaches.

Using nanomedicine devices (nanometre-sized particles thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair), therapeutic drugs are delivered to tumours at the same time as imaging agents, which allow Nick and his team to track where the particles go.

“We generally look at how the materials are cleared from the body and measure how much reaches the tumour,” explains Nick. “If the materials include a drug component we can measure whether they have an effect on tumour growth. We use mostly biologically ‘stealthy’ materials to prevent unwanted interactions with the body and side effects, as happens with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.”

By using components on the nanoscale, Nick and his colleagues can take advantage of physical, chemical and biological interactions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Already, results from his efforts with collaborators and commercial partners have contributed to the start of a human clinical trial using radioimmunotherapy developed by a small biotech company. “I hope the research I’m doing may help push the development of targeted nanomedicines,” he says.

Nick is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation

 
 
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Najoua’s current research investigates the ways in which cancer cells die in order to seek new drugs to treat the disease. Her work focuses on a new type of anti-cancer drug known as smac-mimetics, and Najoua aims to determine how these can affect cancer cells. This will allow her to predict the types of tumours that they may work best on, and identify the patients who can benefit the most.

With colleagues Najoua has already shown that simultaneous inhibition of proteins known as IAP and MK2, when used in combination with smac-mimetics and MK2 inhibitors, can treat leukaemia. She now proposes generating a ‘hybrid compound’ in which a smac-mimetic is chemically linked to an MK2 inhibitor, and will test the effectiveness of this ‘two-in-one’ drug in treating blood cancers.

Among Najoua’s achievements so far is a significant contribution to the clinical development of a smac-mimetic called birinapant. Her studies on cell death pathways in the human body have already led to the discovery of new smac-mimetic-based combination therapies. In acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) they are more effective than chemotherapy and provide fewer side effects. She has also identified the cancers that might benefit most from such therapies: AML, chronic myelomonocytic leukaemia and breast and ovarian cancers.

 

Dr Kyohei Nakamura, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Targeting the inflammatory microenvironment in multiple melanoma

 
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Kyohei’s Cure Cancer Australia-supported project aims to understand the inflammatory environment in multiple myeloma and to develop new treatments for it. “The cancer cells depend on bone marrow to survive and proliferate,” Kyohei explains, “so targeting this environment in combination with anti-myeloma drugs is key to my strategy.”

So far, in attempting to identify potential therapeutic targets he’s found that a type of inflammatory mediator drives the progression of the disease. “My project has revealed that high levels of this factor can predict poor outcomes in myeloma patients.”

Kyohei has seen many multiple myeloma patients (including his grandfather), suffer terrible symptoms such as bone pain, paralysis or infection. Multiple melanoma is often found in the elderly, so it presents challenges for clinicians who must treat patients with additional complications. “I’ve faced many difficulties treating patients suffering from blood cancers. The experiences have motivated me to work towards developing tolerable, effective therapies.”

There’s real reason for optimism, Kyohei believes. While multiple myeloma is widely recognised as being incurable, emerging therapies have shown remarkable promise in clinical trials. “I believe a cure will be within reach in the near future; researchers including me are intensively working for this purpose.”

To support the pioneering work of Australia’s most innovative early-career cancer researchers

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