Researcher Spotlight March: Our Class of 2018
Last Month, Cure Cancer Australia introduced you to five of our newly funded 2018 grant recipients. Here, we introduce you to five more.
Investigating the spread of pancreatic cancer
“Pancreatic cancer is a major clinical problem, with the highest mortality rate of all cancers,” says Dr Angelica Merlot. “The development of new and innovative treatments is quite literally a clinical emergency.”
Angelica’s Cure Cancer Australia-funded project will assess specific critical molecular pathways that are implicated in the progression of the disease and its metastasis. The aim is to develop treatments that target these pathways to stop its growth and spread.
“This project has the potential to lead to more effective treatments and improve survival rates” says Angelica, who was born and raised in Sydney. “I’ve lost multiple family members to cancer. Their struggles are a huge encouragement to me to keep going with my research – to produce real outcomes, and ensure we improve patient survival rates. I see my Cure Cancer Australia grant as vital to this quest.”
To donors and fundraisers Angelica expresses a huge thanks. “I want people who have cancer and their families to know that my colleagues and I care deeply about them, and are working hard to help increase quality of life and survival rates.”
Angelica is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation.
Unlocking the secrets of genes in endometrial cancer
Ovarian and endometrial cancer respectively represent the most lethal and common gynaecological cancers in Australia. Dr Tracy O’Mara is combining genetic data from both diseases to identify changes in genetic sequences that predispose women to them.
The result, she hopes, will be more effective treatments and new drugs. “The work will provide the foundation for us to discover genes that reduce cancer risk, and provide potential targets for drug repurposing using medications currently in use to treat other diseases,” explains Tracy.
Like many, Tracy has been impacted by cancer. “People in my friendship circle – some of whom have young families – have themselves been diagnosed. As a single mother with three young children, that really drives me to work harder and do what I can. My aim is to develop drugs and ensure better outcomes for women who are affected,” she says.
To this end Tracy views the Cure Cancer Australia grant as a significant professional milestone that will allow her to form a solid foundation of work, leading to further funding, which is invariably hard to get.
“I feel fortunate to be able to pursue novel research in an area I’m passionate about, which wouldn’t have been possible without this grant,” she says. “It’s so important to back early-career researchers. We’re the future! Young researchers have some incredibly interesting and novel ideas which can really drive change.”
Hunting the genes that flag cancer risk
Dr Mark Pinese’s Cure Cancer Australia-funded research project will identify genes and genetic features that affect a person’s chances of getting sarcoma, and use this information to help develop a method to predict the risk throughout life.
“From studying identical twins, who have almost identical DNA, scientists know that genes have a significant influence on the risk of acquiring cancer,” says Mark. “But actually identifying the genes responsible and how they work together has been very difficult.”
“We do know some genes that control cancer risk, but these only explain a tiny fraction of cancers,” he says. “My research aims to identify more genetic factors that determine the risk. The ultimate goal is to create a way to accurately identify people at high risk of getting cancer, for surveillance, early treatment, and hopefully cure.”
Mark’s most formative moment came when he worked on the case of a young boy with brain cancer. He spent long nights trying hard to find a hint, somewhere in the boy's cancer DNA, of what might be used to save him. “We did find a drug we thought would work, but it didn’t work well enough, and he passed away. It affected us significantly, and I can’t imagine what it was like for his family.”
This prompted Mark to focus his area of research on prevention and early diagnosis. “A cancer that’s diagnosed early has the best chance of a cure. How do we diagnose cancer sooner? Through better understanding risk.”
Developing combination therapies to treat triple-negative breast cancer
Prahlad’s Cure Cancer Australia-funded research is aimed at developing novel, more effective treatments for triple-negative breast cancer patients. He is investigating the anti-cancer activity of a drug, auranofin, that’s been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis for decades. He intends to repurpose the drug to treat triple-negative breast cancer patients, which seems to be a more effective option than currently available chemotherapeutic drugs.
Sadly, Dr Prahlad Raninga’s has lost two aunts to triple-negative breast cancer. Both women initially responded to chemotherapy but within a year suffered relapse, and the tumours failed to respond to treatment afterwards.
“These incidences reflect the limitations of the available drugs for triple-negative breast cancer,” says Prahlad. “Most patients initially respond to treatment but in a year or two the disease relapses and is fatal. Hence why it’s crucial to develop new treatments for this type of cancer.”
“I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to donors and fundraisers for their generous support for Cure Cancer Australia and early-career researchers like me. Without you we would never be in a position to conduct high-quality research that can make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of cancer patients. You encourage and motivate us.”
Prahlad is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation
Targeting copper homestasis as a therapeutic strategy for neuroblastoma
Neuroblastoma is an aggressive childhood tumour for which survival rates are poor, despite the use of intensive therapy. In his current research Dr Orazio Vittorio aims to study and develop drugs that target neuroblastoma cells and which have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapies.
Neuroblastoma tumours contain high levels of copper compared to normal cells, and Orazio aims to target this copper specifically. He has developed a compound, dextran-catechin, which can kill cancer cells with high copper levels and is less toxic than chemotherapy treatments.
“My project will contribute knowledge to neuroblastoma biology and help develop new, targeted treatments for tumours whose growth depends on copper,” says Orazio. “We aim to establish a therapeutic strategy to increase survival rates and improve the quality of life of patients.”
The survival rate for neuroblastoma patients is about 50%, and these people must deal with short and long-term side effects of treatment for the rest of their lives, including increased risk of heart disease.
A father and cancer survivor himself, Orazio extends thanks to donors and others working on behalf of Cure Cancer Australia. To cancer patients, he has a simple message: “You’re not alone. Please remember, there are many recent discoveries that are impacting the lives of patients positively.”