NHMRC funding to improve cancer screening and outcomes

Six researchers from the University of Melbourne Centre for Cancer Research have been awarded NHMRC Investigator Grants to improve cancer screening and outcomes, to the value of over $11.3 million.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health, announced a total of almost $400 million investment in health and medical research projects, with 237 new projects to receive funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and 30 grants to be funded through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Priority Round.

Transforming early detection of cancer in primary care

Professor Jon EmeryProfessor Jon Emery, of the Department of General Practice, Melbourne Medical School, is leading a program of research on examining approaches to detect cancer earlier in primary care.

Primary care is pivotal to improving early cancer detection through the assessment of patients with symptoms, and by ensuring patients receive cancer screening according to their risk of developing cancer.

This will research map directly onto new international priority areas in translational research for early detection of cancer. Professor Emery aims to identify causes of diagnostic delay and develop new diagnostic algorithms; test a diagnostic decision-support tool to recognise patients at increased risk of an undiagnosed cancer; and to evaluate the use of genomic tests in primary care to identify individuals at increased risk of cancer to tailor screening.

Through the application of advances in clinical informatics and cancer genomics, this research program will transform approaches to detect cancer earlier in primary care. It will result in new knowledge on the causes of cancer diagnostic delay in Australia and novel methods to minimise these.

Precision prevention of colorectal cancer: Understanding tumourigenesis in high risk people to optimise prevention

A/Prof Daniel BuchananAssociate Professor Dan Buchanan, of the Department of Clinical Pathology, Melbourne Medical School, is leading a research program to identify people who have a high risk of colorectal cancer, who need intensive screening for early detection.

A/Prof Buchanan will use novel techniques to study multiple dimensions of the bowel including the microbiome, the immune cells and multiple polyps, epigenetics. Some people are at higher risk due to changes in their DNA or the development of pre-cancerous growths (polyps). Being able to identify these risk factors and understand why colorectal cancer develops in people under 50 years old will allow us to prevent these cancers or catch them earlier.

This research program will provide a deeper understanding of the tumourigenesis landscape in these high colorectal cancer risk setting. Better prediction will be possible for those at risk of developing polyposis, Lynch syndrome or young onset colorectal cancer, so early detection and treatment strategies to be targeted and personalised to those who need it most.

Tackling Australia’s low screening participation to prevent bowel cancer deaths

Professor Mark JenkinsProfessor Mark Jenkins, from the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics of the School of Population and Global Health, is aiming for a 20 per cent increase in bowel cancer screening participation. This aims to result in prevention of 25,000 bowel cancer deaths, and saving the health budget $400 million.

We have a world-leading at-home bowel cancer screening program in Australia however only 41 per cent of eligible people participate. If everyone sent the test used it, 80 per cent of bowel cancer deaths could be prevented.

Screening is lower for people receiving the kit for the first time at 31 per cent participation; the younger participants with only 30 per cent participation for 50 to 54 year old’s compared to 53 per cent participation for 70 to 74 year olds; and lower participation in some cultures and language groups including Indigenous Australians, Southern European and Indian.

Non-screeners are not protected from preventable bowel cancer and therefore are unnecessarily vulnerable. Professor Jenkins aims to devise novel interventions to increase bowel cancer screening to circumvent current barriers; assess their effectiveness through a randomised controlled trial within the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program; and determine the reduction in bowel cancers, deaths and cost-effectiveness of incorporating the most successful interventions into national screening.

Reducing colorectal cancer burden in young adults: Precision prevention and early detection

A/Prof Aung Ko WinAssociate Professor Aung Ko Win, from the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics of the School of Population and Global Health, has received funding to improve colorectal cancer outcomes for people under the age of 50.

Early-onset colorectal cancers – diagnosed before the age of 50 – are increasing. This is in stark contrast to the overall incidence of colorectal cancer cases, which have been consistently falling over the last 20 to 30 years.

Screening and early detection have been pivotal in effective prevention of the disease, however screening does not cover people under the age of 50. As such, the majority of colorectal cancers in young adults are diagnosed at a late stage.

Professor Win’s work will focus on enabling tailored prevention and detection for colorectal cancer in people under the age of 50. He will develop a risk-assessment tool to optimise screening, identify risk factors, and recruit the children of people with early onset colorectal cancer to develop future research.

Circulating tumour DNA for precision medicine

Prof Sarah-Jane DawsonProfessor Sarah-Jane Dawson, of the Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, will advance the use of circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) to serially follow patients and individualise treatment decisions in cancer management across several cancer types.

Many cancers shed small amounts of DNA (circulating tumour DNA or ctDNA) into the patient’s bloodstream. Recent technological advances now allow levels of ctDNA to be accurately measured in the blood.  Changes in ctDNA levels have potential to be used as specific markers of disease progression and/or response to cancer therapy.

Her work will focus on enhancing the clinical applications of ctDNA analysis across various malignancies and hasten its translation in to clinical practice. She will apply ctDNA analyses to explore new avenues of genomic research across various cancer types to uncover new insights into the biology of cancer and the mechanisms for sensitivity and resistance to current and emerging cancer therapies.

Improving outcomes for cancer patients by targeting the epigenome

Prof Mark DawsonProfessor Mark Dawson, of the Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, will use innovative reagents and clinically relevant models to explore how to best employ epigenetic therapies to extract the maximum benefit for cancer patients.

The most commonly mutated proteins in cancer involve so-called epigenetic regulators, a class of proteins that regulate access to our DNA to control gene expression, DNA repair and DNA replication. Professor Dawson’s research has substantially contributed to the development a variety of drugs against epigenetic proteins in cancer.

This work will focus on ways to improve the efficacy of these existing drugs and aim to find new therapies to improve the survival of patients with a broad range of cancers.

Using an array of sophisticated functional genomics strategies and unique mouse models, they will identify the specific components of host immunity required to leverage this novel therapeutic target to improve anti-cancer immune surveillance. This body of work will provide important new insights into the molecular pathogenesis of cancer and deliver novel therapeutic strategies that may significantly increase the survival of patients with cancer.