A/Prof Fernando Fonseca Guimaraes

Strengthening immunotherapy to fight metastasis

A/Prof Fernando Fonseca Guimaraes

Success: Internationally recognised researcher for his ground-breaking immunotherapy work and the recipient of two distinguished COVID-19 research awards.

Cancer type: Breast cancer

A/Prof Fernando Fonseca Guimaraes is a Senior Research Fellow and Group Leader with a focus on immunotherapy at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute.

Research success

Despite advances in treatment and early detection, metastasis remains a leading cause of cancer-related death, and studies over the past decade have reinforced the role the immune system can play.

A/Prof Fernando received Cure Cancer grants in 2015/16 (Targeting specific factors produced by breast cancer tumours that control breast cancer spreading), and 2017/18 (Immunotherapy for melanoma). He was awarded further funding for 2019/20 to continue previous research into how the immune system can control the spread of cancer, with an aim of identifying breakthrough science that can stimulate the body’s immune system to achieve this.

In 2017, A/Prof Fernando and his colleagues discovered another way that cancers protect themselves from the immune system, allowing them to grow and spread. Researchers found that a particular chemical produced by tumours turns Natural Killer (NK) immune cells into another type of immune cell that appears to help the cancer to grow.

The findings - published in the journal Nature Immunology - pave the way for an antibody to be developed to stop the NK cells from being converted, and potentially stop the tumour from spreading. 

Novel breakthrough into COVID-19

In addition to this Cure Cancer funded research, a collaboration involving A/Prof Fernando and fellow Cure Cancer grant recipient Dr Arutha Kulasinghe this year received a prestigious AusBiotech and Johnson & Johnson Innovation Industry Excellence Awards, recognising work to gain a mechanistic and molecular understanding of lethal inflammatory events resulting from COVID-19 infection.

The team were able to identify a genetic signature in the lungs which is indicative of disease severity. This could be useful for triaging patients in the northern hemisphere, given the increasing rates of infections such as influenza and COVID-19.

AusBiotech Chief Executive Officer Lorraine Chiroiu said: ‘The extraordinary achievements that these individuals and companies have delivered in response to COVID-19 has been a truly remarkable illumination of the importance of our sector to the health, well-being and economic security of all Australians within a very difficult year. The awards act as a celebration of the innovation excellence happening across the country.’

A prestigious achievement

In 2021, the US Department of Defense (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program awarded AU$1mn (USD$750k) to A/Prof Fernando and A/Prof Paul Beavis to continue their novel work into breast cancer.

Currently, the majority of triple negative breast cancers do not respond to immunotherapy – a type of cancer treatment which triggers a patient’s own immune cells fight cancer. However, many new immunotherapeutic interventions are making a significant impact on the treatment of blood cancers, but as yet these approaches have not been tested in breast cancer.

The objective of this three-year DoD grant is to develop new strategies for the production of an immune system-derived off-the-shelf therapy to target cancer, allowing for ongoing long-term protection. This research will potentially impact those patients who have failed conventional therapies and therefore have a worse overall prognosis.

A/Prof Fernando, A/Prof Paul (at the Peter MacCallum Centre) and their teams will look at ways these successes in treating blood cancer could be applied to breast cancers. The key objectives of the project are to revolutionise treatment regimens by replacing them with ones that are more effective, less toxic, and impact survival, whilst eliminating the mortality associated with metastatic breast cancer.

As part of their research, the team will investigate whether cells derived from a donor different than the patient can be used to trigger an immune response.

This project has the capacity to help patients who have failed conventional therapies and therefore have a worse overall prognosis. A major benefit of this approach is that it will develop novel strategies for the production of an immune system-derived off-the-shelf therapy to target cancer,” says A/Prof Fernando.

Further recognition

In early 2020, A/Prof Fernando Guimaraes was one of over 300 applicants worldwide to obtain a major grant (USD$750k) from the US Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, in collaboration with Cure Cancer alumni A/Prof Paul Beavis (Also CC Alumni). The objective of A/Prof Fernando’s three-year grant is to develop novel strategies for the production of an immune system-derived off-the-shelf therapy to target triple negative breast cancer, allowing for ongoing long-term protection. This research will have a significant impact for those patients who have failed conventional therapies and therefore have a worse overall prognosis.

A/Prof Fernando was also successful this year in securing a coveted position to participate in The Bridge Program which is delivered by QUT. It involves a consortium of pharmaceutical companies, universities and industry affiliates. A/Prof Fernando will further develop his knowledge, skills and networks to enable successful commercialisation of new pharmaceuticals. This training also allowed A/Prof Fernando to be chosen as the winner of the 2020 Bridge Program – Pitch Competition.

In April of this year, A/Prof Fernando was awarded the 2020 Queensland Tall Poppy Science Award for his work into the development of immunotherapy drugs that enhance NK cells to have ‘super killer’ strength to fight metastasis. This recognition is a major achievement in his career so far.

To cap off a year of incredible success, A/Prof Fernando has just been honoured by his former university (Federal University of Parana) as the most successful postgrad student from the last 10-15 years, and with a Rising Star Award in the End Of Year Program at his current institute - University of Queensland Diamantina Institute.

The need for funding

Currently an independent group leader at University of Queensland (a position that only 0.4% PhD graduates achieve), A/Prof Fernando is passionate about collaboration and mentorship, but despite his stand out successes, obtaining funding remains the biggest ongoing challenge of his career.

‘My success and achievements have undoubtedly been helped by the outstanding support of Cure Cancer. I’m honoured to have had these opportunities. Early-career grants are a priceless opportunity for scientists like me, but for research to progress, more funding is desperately needed.’

“Early-career grants are a priceless opportunity for scientists like me, but more funding is desperately needed.”

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