Gastro-intestinal cancer research

Identifying blood-based biomarkers to predict immunotherapy effectiveness in late-stage liver cancer

Dr Jennifer Currenti

Dr Jennifer Currenti’s research is funded by Cure Cancer

They are based at The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and Curtin University  

Dr Jennifer Currenti is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research. They completed their PhD on influenza and HIV in 2022 at The University of Western Australia, which recently awarded them a Dean’s List Honourable Mention. Now, they are bringing their expertise in viral immunology and bioinformatics to undertake research on the use of immunotherapy in late-stage liver cancer.  

Liver cancer

Liver cancer, an upper gastrointestinal cancer type, is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death in the world, claiming over 800,000 lives every year. This is an alarming figure, especially when compared to the fact that more than 900,000 people are diagnosed with this cancer each year. Global rates of liver cancer are predicted to surge in the next 20 years by 55%, accompanied by a 56.4% increase in the number of related deaths. Despite its low prognosis, liver cancer remains underfunded and there is limited public awareness about the disease.  

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form of liver cancer and has a 5-year survival of around 20%, 50% lower than the relative survival observed across all combined cancers in 2014-2018. Early detection typically guarantees the best outcomes for many cancers, however even early diagnoses of liver cancer come with this poor prognosis.  

Unfortunately, the mortality rate of HCC is on the rise in Australia, and patients have a 70-80% chance of the cancer returning within 5 years of undergoing treatment and becoming ‘cured’. These high rates of cancer recurrence undermine the long-term effectiveness of first-line curative therapies such as surgery and liver transplantation.  

Dr Jennifer Currenti’s liver cancer research

“Developing a blood test that can guide personalised clinical decision-making will improve overall survival rates and ease the burden on people living with liver cancer and their families and friends. I hope our work will make a meaningful difference and bring us closer to a future where more people can survive and thrive beyond their diagnosis.​” 

- Dr Jennifer Currenti 

Currently, clinical trials are assessing the use of immunotherapy following curative surgery to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and increase the survival of liver cancer patients. While initial findings are promising, only 1 in 3 patients will benefit from immunotherapy and on top of its costliness, there is a high risk of adverse effects. Consequently, immunotherapy should only be given to patients who are likely to respond to the treatment, and there is a need to understand the biological mechanisms behind this. 

Dr Currenti and their team recently made a significant discovery related to a specific T-cell (immune cell) in liver tissue samples of patients with advanced liver cancer. They found biomarkers in these cells that are associated with how well a patient responds to immunotherapy. Using advanced mapping technologies, they will study liver cancer tissue and blood samples from late-stage HCC patients who are receiving immunotherapy. By examining these biomarkers in patients’ T-cells, they will be able to determine their ability to predict patients’ response to immunotherapy.  

If successful, Dr Currenti aims to apply these findings to real-world, clinical settings by developing a simple blood test based on the biomarkers that can be done post-surgery. This will finally enable doctors to give reliable, personalised treatment plans for HCC patients, identify suitable candidates for immunotherapy, and offer alternative treatments if they are not.  

The importance of funding cancer research

Dr Currenti is motivated by their understanding of the far-reaching impacts of cancer on people and their loved ones, and their self-described “deep belief in the potential of scientific research to drive change.” For emerging researchers, being able to continue driving change means “building their expertise, securing funding, and producing meaningful research outcomes while facing fierce competition for limited resources and positions,” they said. 

“Securing funding is essential for conducting experiments, accessing necessary equipment, and supporting oneself or a research team. Most importantly, funding allows early-career researchers to attend conferences, receiving vital feedback on their work, and establishing collaborations crucial for developing independence as a researcher.​” 

In their spare time, Dr Currenti finds joy in going on hikes and travelling with their partner and two miniature dachshunds, Chester and Link. As a keen athlete, they have even participated in the occasional CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting beginner’s competition.  

“​​Cure Cancer grants are a critical source of funding for early-career researchers, enabling the beginnings of an independent research career. It will help me to establish independence and form collaborations, supporting my goal of establishing my own laboratory.​”

Together, we can cure cancer.

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