$5 million NHMRC funding for cancer research

The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, have received a $5 million NHMRC Synergy Grant towards a study aimed at eradicating the most aggressive and difficult-to-treat cancer cells, including breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.

The multi-disciplinary research study, led by Associate Professor Delphine Merino from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, will explore multiple ways to target both cancer cells and the surrounding normal cells to improve patient outcomes.

It is the first time a Synergy Grant has been awarded to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, and involves collaboration between the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine and School of Computing, Engineering, Mathematical Sciences.

NHMRC Synergy Grants support outstanding multi-disciplinary teams of researchers to work together to answer major questions that cannot be answered by a single researcher.

The collaborative project, Targeting lethal metastases: finding new targets in the tumour/microenvironment interface, also involves Professor Michael Samuel from the Centre for Cancer Biology an alliance between SA Pathology and the University of South Australia, Associate Professor Marina Pajic from The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Professor Shalin Naik from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), Professor Matthias Ernst and Professor Phoebe Chen from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute / La Trobe University, and several other researchers across Australia.

Associate Professor Merino said new technologies had revealed that aggressive tumours, once spread as metastases in other areas of the body, are highly complex ecosystems where cancer cells and normal cells coexist, compete or cooperate. The way they work together is responsible for a cancer patient’s outcome.

She said the team would study the way cells and molecules drive the growth of tumours in some of the most common and deadly solid cancers – breast, colorectal and pancreatic.

“While a growing arsenal of anti-cancer drugs targeting cancer cells or normal cells, such as immune cells, is becoming available, some cancers remain difficult to treat,” Associate Professor Merino said.

“Our team will use state-of-the-art technologies to study the complex ecosystems orchestrating the spread of aggressive cancer cells into vital organs. We will then design new combination therapies to target the vulnerabilities in these cells to prevent or treat metastases.”

La Trobe University Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry Engagement) Professor Susan Dodds said this was one of 10 projects to receive Synergy funding, out of 50 applications nationally.

“Receiving an NHMRC Synergy Grant in a highly competitive field demonstrates the importance of collaboration and the strength of expertise in the multi-disciplinary team that has been assembled for this large program of research to solve some of the greatest issues of our time,” Professor Dodds said.

Professor Marco Herold, Chief Executive Officer of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and Head of the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, expressed the profound impact that this NHMRC Synergy Grant would have on the future of cancer research.

“This funding will enable us to secure vital resources and expertise over the next five years. Combining our efforts across Australian medical research Institutes will take cancer research to the next level to improve patient outcomes,” said Professor Herold.

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