New strategy for treating cancer recognised with Victoria Prize

Two researchers standing in front of an animated picture, looking at camera

Associate Professor Tim Thomas (L) and Professor

Anne Voss have won the 2021 Victoria Prize.

WEHI Associate Professor Tim Thomas and Professor Anne Voss have been awarded the 2021 Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation in Life Sciences, for their novel research that has led to a new chemical strategy to treat cancer.

The $50,000 prize recognises the ground-breaking research conducted by the scientists in finding a novel anti-cancer strategy that doesn’t trigger the harmful side-effects caused by conventional cancer treatments.

The researchers, who have worked together for more than 30 years, made discoveries that uncovered key functions of the MYST family of proteins and validated them as novel targets for anti-cancer therapies. They also led a collaborative team that discovered a new type of anti-cancer compound that puts cancer cells into a ‘permanent sleep’.

At a glance

  • Professor Anne Voss and Associate Professor Tim Thomas have been awarded the 2021 Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation in Life Sciences.
  • The team undertook novel research that led to a new chemical strategy for treating cancer by putting cancer cells to ‘sleep’.
  • Compounds based on the early-stage research of Professor Voss and Associate Professor Thomas progressed into clinical trials in late 2020.

International expertise

Professors Voss and Associate Professor Thomas are international experts in the biology of MYST family proteins.

Working with the Cancer Therapeutics (CTx) CRC, researchers from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), CSIRO and St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, the researchers investigated ways to inhibit MYST proteins to treat cancer. A large chemical compound screen led to the development of novel inhibitors of the MYST proteins. This was followed by a collaboration with researchers from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to expand the potential cancer spectrum that may benefit from MYST inhibitor treatment.

Compounds based on the early-stage discoveries of Professor Voss and Associate Professor Thomas progressed into clinical trials in late 2020.

Putting cancer cells to sleep

Professor Voss said the duo’s research, conducted with their team at WEHI, identified the first class of anti-cancer compounds that cause some cancer cells to permanently exit the cell cycle – putting cancer cells to ‘sleep’.

“Rather than causing potentially dangerous DNA damage, this new class of anti-cancer compounds puts cancer cells into a state of cell cycle arrest termed ‘cellular senescence’,” she said.

“Crucially, in arresting tumour growth they do not damage the cells’ DNA. This is a critical difference between this new class of compounds and standard cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which work by causing irreversible DNA damage, causing collateral damage to healthy cells.”

Associate Professor Thomas said the duo had spent more than 20 years studying the family of proteins.

“Our initial research led to discovery of the MYST family protein KAT6B, and later to determine the biological functions of the other MYST proteins and their role in cellular senescence and cancer. Armed with this knowledge, we began to look for ways of inhibiting the protein to treat cancer,” he said.

“This new class of anti-cancer compounds was effective in preventing cancer progression in our preclinical cancer models. We are extremely excited about the potential that they hold as an entirely new tool for fighting cancer.”

Following publication of the work in Nature in 2018, the research attracted worldwide media attention. They have also been recognised by joint an individual awards, including the 2021 Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) Clunies Ross Knowledge Commercialisation Award jointly with Professor Jonathan Baell (MIPS).

Professor Voss said she and Associate Professor Thomas were honoured to receive this award.

“We are grateful to veski for this award, and thank the team of 50 researchers who worked on this project with us. We hope our work highlights the importance of long-term investment in translational research to improve the lives of the millions of people worldwide impacted by cancer.”

Significant achievement

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said the scientists’ were pioneers in their field who have made significant discoveries in advancing cancer treatment.

“The new class of drugs could provide an important alternative for people with cancer and has already shown great promise in halting cancer progression in models of blood and liver cancers, as well as in delaying relapse,” Professor Hilton said.

“The research is particularly significant considering that this family of genes had previously been considered ‘undruggable’ by the scientific community. Their collaborative approach to research and long-term commitment to improving the lives of people in Australia and around the world is admirable and I congratulate Anne and Tim on this well-deserved award.”

The Victoria Prize was first awarded in 1998 and celebrates leadership, determination, endeavour and creativity, while highlighting the many ways in which Victoria leads the way in terms of research and development of international significance.

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