Gastro-intestinal cancer research

Utilising cutting-edge technologies to test the effectiveness of a new type of immunotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer

Dr Kevin Fenix

Dr Kevin Fenix’s research is generously funded by GameOnCancer® fundraisers

He is based at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research (BHI) and the University of Adelaide

Dr Kevin Fenix is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow who is working on finding new treatments for people living with bowel and head and neck cancers. Shortly after completing his immunology PhD at the University of Adelaide in 2017, he was awarded The Hospital Research Foundation Early Career Fellowship to study tissue-specific biomarkers for metastatic bowel cancer. He went on to secure his current position at the BHI, which has direct connections to The Queen Elizabeth Hospital (TQEH) and allows him to work closely with patients. 

Kevin has had the opportunity to meet patients living with metastatic bowel cancer, which has inspired him to make a difference in this area of research. “Many of them have generously contributed to the research and maintained a positive outlook despite their circumstances. This has inspired me to expand my research into finding and developing treatments for these patients.”

Bowel cancer

Every year, 5,000 Australians lose their lives to bowel cancer, a common type of gastrointestinal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide and in Australia. 

As the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, bowel cancer is often asymptomatic. When detected early, it is one of the most treatable types of cancer, however patients with metastatic bowel cancer face a 15% chance of surviving the first 5 years of their diagnosis. 

Dr Kevin Fenix’s bowel cancer research

While immunotherapy has the potential to revolutionise cancer treatment, current immunotherapies have limited efficacy for bowel cancer. Dr Kevin Fenix is determined to investigate novel, unconventional immunotherapies that will significantly improve the treatment of metastatic bowel cancer. Kevin’s Cure Cancer-funded project is focused on cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell therapy, which is an understudied field compared to other immunotherapies. 

CIK cells are lab-made immune cells that are derived from exposing a patient’s own white blood cells to proteins called cytokines, which enable these cells to recognise and target a broad spectrum of cancer cells. CIK cell therapy, either on its own or in combination with other therapies, can improve patient survival across many cancers and as Kevin’s preliminary findings have demonstrated, can extend the survival of metastatic bowel cancer patients. However, despite being available for over 20 years, there is limited adoption of this unique type of immunotherapy due to significant barriers that can be attributed to a limited understanding of its biology. 

Kevin and his team will address this by utilising cutting-edge technology to map the cellular components within CIK cell therapy, creating a cellular ‘atlas’ that can help them identify the components that are responsible for anti-cancer activity. Following this, they will validate these results by testing these anti-cancer components’ efficacies against bowel cancer cells grown in the lab. Ultimately, Kevin’s research will demystify and strengthen the effectiveness of CIK cell therapy and ensure there is greater adoption of CIK cell therapy globally. If successful, this project will provide the necessary framework for the approval of an Australia-first clinical trial for metastatic bowel cancer patients in Adelaide within 3 years. 

The importance of funding cancer research

Like other Cure Cancer grant recipients, Kevin sees the lack of funding as a significant career hurdle for emerging researchers. “This consequently leads to poor job security and limited career prospects for ECRs looking to stay and progress in an academic research setting.​” He notes that his Cure Cancer grant will enable him to build his own team for his project and importantly, it will enhance his track record of obtaining grants and continuing to produce research, which is vital for his competitiveness in future funding schemes, especially with larger funding bodies like the NHMRC. 

“​A career in research is challenging compared to other professional paths. With that said, I believe that research can be highly rewarding. I would encourage aspiring researchers to find an intriguing question they'd like to solve, give it a try, work hard, and enjoy the journey!”

When he’s not wearing his lab coat, Kevin likes to play RPG video games like Final Fantasy VII Remake. As a fan of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, he enjoys watching classics like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and the Lord of The Rings trilogy.

“The Cure Cancer funding will be crucial for my career development. The two-year funding will provide financial stability and help advance my career as an independent research leader in the cancer immunotherapy field. It will allow me to focus on developing cytokine-induced killer cell therapy as a potential treatment for metastatic bowel cancer.”

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