Cancer Council Western Australia Research Project Grants

Full list of Research Project Grants and recipients 2018

Project Improving treatment options for pancreatic cancer
Recipient  Prof Ruth Ganss
Institution Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Research description  

Pancreatic cancer is a devastating and incurable disease. It has a dismal 5 year survival rate below 7%. Our goal is to improve currently available anti-cancer therapies and overall patient survival using a newly developed drug.

In particular, our research team is looking into how blood vessels grow in cancers. These blood vessels nourish cancers, but fail to bring in chemotherapy to kill the cancer. It is already known that blood vessels in cancer are leaky and their shape and tone is abnormal. Over the last years, the team has been working on strategies to control these blood vessels and make them more like normal blood vessels in the body. As a result, the team has developed a new drug which binds to abnormal cancer blood vessels. Upon binding, shape and tone of cancer vessels are restored and they become tighter.

Our research will now test in a preclinical model of pancreatic cancer whether combining this new drug with current standard-of-care therapies such as chemo- and immunotherapy will improve cytotoxic drug effects and also make the immune system work better to fight the cancer; toxic side effects which are well known to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy should be reduced.  Moreover, it is expected that tightening of cancer blood vessels will stop cancer cells from spreading throughout the body. Therefore our research aims at improving anti-cancer therapy, limiting toxic side effects and preventing metastatic cancer growth.

Funding from CCWA $100,000
Fully supported In the name of Jill Tilly

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Project Establishing the potential of monocyte chemotactic protein-1 as a novel treatment for mesothelioma and pleural effusion
Recipient  Dr Sally Lansley
Institution The University of Western Australia
Research description  

Mesothelioma kills one person every 12 hours in Australia. We have one of the world’s highest rates of mesothelioma due to the past mining and exportation of crocidolite (the most carcinogenic type of asbestos). This is of particular relevance to Western Australia due to previous extensive asbestos mining operations in Wittenoom. This frequency will also continue to rise due to individuals becoming exposed to asbestos through home renovation and DIY projects. Mesothelioma has no cure: Attempts with common anti-cancer treatments, alone or in combination, have failed. With a survival rate of less than 12 months following diagnosis, there is an urgent need to find new therapies.

The majority of mesothelioma patients (>90%) will also develop an accumulation of fluid within the chest (malignant pleural effusion) during their disease course. Malignant pleural effusion is a serious condition resulting in severe patient discomfort, breathlessness and poor quality of life. Malignant pleural effusion is currently managed by attempts to remove the fluid, which is suboptimal and effusions will commonly return. Understanding the mechanism/s of mesothelioma and effusion development is therefore essential to improving patient care and outcomes.

The team have identified a molecule (MCP-1) that drives effusion formation and when MCP-1 is removed from the local environment the effusion volume and tumour size significantly decrease. This study aims to uncover the mechanisms by which MCP-1 drives effusion formation and mesothelioma tumour growth in order to develop targeted therapies. The research team will trial drugs that block MCP-1 (or its receptor) that have been shown to work in our mouse mesothelioma models and are currently being tested in human trials for other cancers.

The potential overall benefits of this research are (A) to understand how MCP-1 promotes mesothelioma tumour growth and malignant pleural effusion formation and B) whether the use of anti-MCP-1 drugs results in better patient outcomes (decreased tumour burden, decreased pleural effusion volume and quality of life), including long term responses. This will potentially lead to the development of a new treatment for people with mesothelioma and malignant pleural effusion.

Funding from CCWA $95,738
Fully supported Through an anonymous estate

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Project Aiming for the Achilles’ heel - discovering an effective drug against mesothelioma
Recipient  Dr Willem Lesterhuis
Institution The University of Western Australia
Research description  

Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Western Australia has the highest incidence of this cancer in the world, because of the mining, transport and high use of asbestos here. The outcome for people with mesothelioma has not improved in more than a decade. Mesothelioma starts in the lining of the lungs, but once it is diagnosed it often rapidly grows into surrounding organs such as the ribcage and heart. This causes severe shortness of breath and pain. The fast growth into surrounding organs makes it an ‘invasive’ cancer. It is not known why mesothelioma is so invasive.

Mesothelioma is unique in that asbestos causes exactly the same tumours in humans and animals. The research team studies mesothelioma in mice, because mice can develop both invasive and non-invasive mesotheliomas. By comparing tumours from invasive and non-invasive mesotheliomas the team can address the question ‘what makes mesothelioma such an invasive cancer?’ In doing so, two related proteins have been identified that fuel the invasiveness and fast-growing behaviour of mesothelioma.These proteins are involved in the metabolism of sugar and fats, which is often abnormal in cancer cells. When these protens are  inhibited in mesothelioma cells from patients, the cancer cells died, while normal cells remained unharmed. This strongly suggests that these two proteins are not only very important in mesothelioma growth but that a drug that inhibits them could be very effective.

In this project, the aim is  to design drugs that specifically bind to these mesothelioma proteins, and thereby neutralize their activity. The interactions will be observed between the drug and proteins to create an optimal ‘fit’, and these variants will be tested against cancer cells from mesothelioma patients to identify the most effective drug. Using this approach, the aim is to develop a drug that is effective against mesothelioma, which  can then be taken further into the clinic.

Funding from CCWA $99,516
Supported Through an anonymous estate and in the name of Kott Gunning Lawyers


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Project Defining and defeating indigenous disadvantage in breast cancer survival
Recipient  Dr Andrew Redfern
Institution The University of Western Australia
Research description  

Studies looking at age, stage at diagnosis, patient remoteness, and access to medical services only explain a fraction of this disadvantage.

The research will look at a large range of factors relating to the breast cancers Indigenous women get and how they are treated, any of which could worsen survival. These will include whether Indigenous women experience differences in:

• basic types of breast cancers diagnosed eg HER2 positive.

• how well they activate anti-cancer drugs

• the density of tissue and the immune cells around the cancers

• the way cancers are treated in early and late stages

None of these factors have been studied in Indigenous women before.

These aims will be achieved by studying all 114 Indigenous women diagnosed 2001-2010 and compared to 314 non-Indigenous women living in similar areas. Our research has already found that these women were 400% more likely to die of their cancer. The research team will achieve this by sourcing medical records and other data from throughout each person’s therapy and plotting that treatment. Samples of each cancer will be collected and tested for specific cancer type and immune cell density. Breast density and whether it affects tumour size and outcome will be calculated from collected mammograms. Also, normal tissue will be tested for genes that activate anti-cancer drugs.

The team will also carry out 5 interviews for each group exploring attitudes to treatment and barriers to care, basing some questions on findings from the above. Finally, the team will hold two exploratory forums in regional/remote hubs relevant to treatment of Indigenous women. These will have educational elements for healthcare workers and interested public. Solutions for problems such as doctor and patient education, telehealth to help drug compliance, and local chemotherapy delivery will be explored.  The best treatment for Indigenous women will be identified and the research team will endeavour to ensure this is delivered.

Funding from CCWA $91,945
Fully supported Through an anonymous estate

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Project Asbestos exposure, autoimmunity and asbestos-related diseases: filling in the knowledge gaps.
Recipient  A/Prof Alison Reid
Institution Curtin University
Research description  

This project will examine whether exposure to asbestos causes an autoimmune response and whether that autoimmune response is higher in people with mesothelioma and lung cancer. Mesothelioma has no effective treatment and very poor survival. Many people in Western Australia have been exposed to asbestos and remain at risk of developing mesothelioma for many decades after they were exposed. Australia has among the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world.

We will examine the blood of 25 participants with mesothelioma, 25 with lung cancer and 50 who were exposed to asbestos but who do not have a disease. These participants are people who participate in three long term follow up studies of people exposed to asbestos. We have collected their blood annually, from before they developed mesothelioma or lung cancer. We will look for an autoimmune response in the blood sample taken closest to the time that they were diagnosed with either mesothelioma or lung cancer and the most recent sample of those 50 without a disease. We want to determine if the autoimmune response is influenced by the amount of asbestos exposure or if the autoimmune response is higher in people with mesothelioma or lung cancer. Our collaborator in the United States will do all the blood testing and then send us the results. We will used mixed effects regression models to statistically analyse the data to find out if the autoimmune response develops before the onset of mesothelioma or lung cancer.

If we find that an autoimmune response is caused by asbestos exposure and is increased in people with mesothelioma then the long term impacts for mesothelioma control and care are considerable. It will provide new areas of research for laboratory scientists to explore to further understand the disease process. New knowledge may lead to new processes or targets for intervention, prevention or treatment. For example, laboratory research could focus on developing methods that modulate or block the autoimmune response so that mesothelioma does not develop. This could make a big difference to the many thousands of Australians, particularly Western Australians, who have been exposed to asbestos but for whom no means of preventing the onset of disease after exposure (secondary prevention) exists.

Funding from CCWA $73,253
Supported In the names of the Estate of Anthony Ryan, Swan Athletics Senior Citizens & the Estate of Paulus Hoogendyk

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Project The effects of a peer-led walking program on physical activity, health, well-being, and work outcomes in physically inactive employees
Recipient  A/Prof Cecilie Thogersen-Ntoumani
Institution Curtin University
Research description  

Regular physical activity, such as walking, helps prevent cancer (particularly postate, breast and endometrial cancers), and leads to improvements in physical and mental health. It is also well-established that physical activity is beneficial for cancer survivors. However, most Australians are inactive and those who do initiate regular exercise do not keep it up. Therefore, it is critical to identify physical activity programs that individuals can initiate and sustain long term.

The workplace has been identified as a suitable setting to promote physical activity, as many employees are physically inactive, and this increases their cancer risk. Our previous research has shown that our workplace walking program attracts physically inactive employees, and that those who take part sustain their walking regime over the long term.

The purpose of this project is to expand upon our previous research and determine whether our workplace peer-led walking program is effective in promoting sufficient and sustained walking which will improve the health, well-being and work performance of employees. We will compare two groups. Group 1 will be given a step counter (pedometer), a daily step count target, and information about suggested walking routes. Group 2 will be given the same as Group 1 but will also take part in peer-led group walks, led by peer leaders who will receive motivation training to motivate physically inactive colleagues to increase levels of walking. The participants themselves will also receive motivation training directly (e.g., regarding how to make effective plans). We will compare changes in amount of walking, health, well-being and work outcomes between the two groups at the end of the program (6 months).

This research can be used for future health promotion in the workplace. It can also contribute to research and policy on preventive cancer strategies, as well as on ways to increase physical activity to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors.

Funding from CCWA $96,053
Supported Through an Anonymous Estate


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Project Improved diagnostic testing for better breast cancer outcomes
Recipient  Dr Katie Meehan
Institution The University of Western Australia
Research description  

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women and each year in Australia, about 15,000 women are diagnosed with this disease. We know that certain types of breast cancer respond very well to specific treatments, whereas other types do not. It is very important that we determine what type of breast cancer a patient has so that they receive the best kind of treatment. This is particularly important for breast cancers that have high levels of ‘HER2’, a protein made in excess by certain breast cancer cells. Up to 3000 women in Australia each year have very high levels of HER2 and as a result, are eligible to receive a specific drug that is covered by the public health system.

Unfortunately, the tests that we currently use to determine HER2 levels in breast cancer are not particularly reliable. It is estimated that up to 30% of all breast cancer patients receive incorrect HER2 results. This directly impacts the way these patients are treated and subsequently, their outcomes. This is a burden for the patients, their families and the health budget. Breast cancer patients with ‘false’ positive results receive inappropriate treatment and may experience unnecessary side effects that require additional care. In contrast, women with ‘false’ negative results are denied treatment that may have improved their outcome and will also require additional care as their disease progresses.

This project will investigate a new, potentially more accurate method of HER2 testing. We have already published a small study which shows that this new test appears to be more accurate than existing methods. In this project, we will extend the previous study and test a much larger number of breast cancers to confirm the method is superior. We expect that the new test will be rapidly adopted by pathology laboratories and will immediately benefit patients.

Funding from CCWA $99,910
Supported In the name of the Mavis Sands Bequest


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