2021 Cancer Council WA PhD Top Up Scholarships

These three year PhD Top Up Scholarships are awarded to applicants who have an outstanding academic record and the potential to pursue full-time PhD studies in cancer-related research.

See the full list of 2021 recipients below:

Project title: Making the unseen, seen: Turning on immune genes in breast cancer to improve treatment success
Recipient: Mr Eric Alves
Institution: The University of Western Australia
Project description:

Breast cancer (BC) is the most common cancer in Australia, with approximately 20,000 diagnoses and 3000 deaths in 2020 alone. Most BC patients are diagnosed early enough to be successfully treated with surgery, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and/or chemotherapy. However, 20-30 per cent of patients initially diagnosed with early-stage BC will eventually develop a metastatic disease (when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body). In these cases, chemotherapy is the only treatment option, as these drug types can travel through the body and kill the cancer cells that have spread beyond the original location.

Due to the high rates of relapse and drug resistance seen in chemotherapy, targeted cancer immunotherapies have been developed as alternative treatment options. These therapies boost a patient's immune system, to help the immune cells find and kill cancer cells. However, though these treatments have worked well in some hard-to-treat cancers (e.g. melanoma), their use in BC has not been as successful. One major reason for this is that BC itself is able to "turn-off" important genes which help the immune system to "see" the cancer. In doing so, the cancer cells can stay hidden and survive.

This project aims to use state-of-the-art gene editing technology to design and test a new target treatment that can reverse this process and "turn-on" the important genes that BC has previously "turned-off". If successful, the treatment designed as part of this project will help to make BC more visible to the immune system. Therefore, the patient's immune system will better be able to "see" the cancer and work in combination with other currently available therapies to improve their rates of success. Furthermore, given other cancer types also "turn-off" the same genes, this treatment is likely to benefit other cancers as well (e.g. pancreatic cancer).

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $12,000 for 2021 (up to $30,000 in total for 2021-2023)
Supported by: Jan Cooper, Brent, Jake and Ross Luckman & the Estate of John Kilmaster


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Project title: Harnessing the genetic signature of tumours that are eliminated by the immune system to improve current therapies
Recipient: Ms Hannah Newnes
Institution: The University of Western Australia
Research description:

Immunotherapies work by boosting the immune system to clear tumours. While there have been impressive results, unfortunately a number of patients fail to respond. This project aims to understand the immune response driving elimination versus cancer escape, which is classically a binary response. Patients either have a ‘hot' immune active tumour which is responsive to therapies or a ‘cold' immune inactive tumour which is unresponsive to therapy.

Our early data suggests for successful treatment patients require a balance of both ‘hot' and ‘cold' signals to drive a finely tuned ‘warm' environment. An ‘overheated' response drives a short but ultimately ineffectual immune response, which may explain why some patients with a ‘hot' tumour fail to respond to therapy. Using current technology, we can investigate the mechanisms driving ‘warm' responses to recapitulate them in the laboratory. Using this knowledge, we can stratify patients and deliver personalised therapies to switch them from ‘overheated' or ‘cold' tumours to ‘warm' tumours to improve their response to current therapies.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $12,000 for 2021 (Up to $18,000 in total for 2021-2022)
Supported by:  Lions Cancer Institute Karen and Joshua Chinnery PhD Top Up Scholarship


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Project title: Investigation of psychosocial information and support needs and support service use of patients diagnosed with advanced cancer
Recipient: Ms Jade Newton
Institution:  Curtin University
Project description:

Some people are diagnosed with cancer that has spread to other parts of their body and they are not able to be cured by current treatments. This is known as 'advanced cancer'. Not a lot is known about how patients with advanced cancer manage the emotional and social (or, 'psychosocial') impact of their diagnosis, and how available support affects their experience.

This project will explore what psychosocial support patients with advanced cancer use, how it impacts them, and the costs and benefits of using psychosocial supportive care. This will be achieved by looking at what research has been done in this area, interviewing patients with advanced cancer to learn about their experiences, and undertaking a cohort study, where patients will be surveyed over six months to look at their needs, distress, and support services use over time.

Understanding the needs and service use of patients with advanced cancer will help to make sure the best support is being provided to lessen the distress and suffering they may experience.

Funding from Cancer Council WA:  $12,000 in 2021 ($36,000 in total 2019 - 2021)
Supported by: Lions Cancer Institute Karen and Joshua Chinnery PhD Top Up Scholarship


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Project title: Do mesothelioma patients have the right keys to unlock a successful anti-tumour immune response?
Recipient: Miss Nicola Principe
Institutiton: The University of Western Australia
Project description:

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Australia has one of the highest rates of deaths from mesothelioma, with Western Australia having the highest incidence in Australia due to the mining of asbestos in Wittenoom. Chemotherapy is only palliative, with a short survival of 12 months after diagnosis.

Immunotherapy is an exciting treatment for mesothelioma, working to boost a patient's immune cells (in particular T cells) to clear tumours. Clinical trials combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy can be an effective treatment in some cancer patients, whilst other patients gain no benefit. This may be due to each patient having different T cell receptors (TCRs) or keys that need to unlock the immune system to produce a successful anti-tumour immune response.

With the current technology to study millions of keys at the same time, this project will map distinct combinations of keys associated with a successful anti-tumour immune response, to see if we can predict chemo-immunotherapy outcomes.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $12,000 for 2021 (up to $30,000 in total for 2020-2022)
Supported by: Marie-Claude Buegge-Meunier


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Project title: The influence of muscle structure on treatment and survival in women with advanced ovarian cancer: Can an exercise intervention improve patient outcomes?
Recipient: Miss Christelle Schofield
Institution: Edith Cowan University
Project description:

About 75 per cent of ovarian cancer (OC) cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage. Only 28 per cent of women with advanced OC survive five years. Research shows that women with better muscle structure (muscle mass + density) at diagnosis survive longer.

The project will determine if muscle structure:

1) changes during treatment,

2) is associated with treatment tolerance,

3) differs between treatment groups, and

4) can improve with resistance exercise.

Muscle structure will be measured using pre- and post-treatment CT scans. Treatment tolerance information will be collected from medical records. A group of women will participate in an exercise program to assess if exercise can improve muscle structure and function.

This research will investigate:

1) the usefulness of muscle structure to identify women with poor treatment tolerance and survival,

2) the potential of exercise to improve muscle structure and function.

Results will inform the development of better supportive care for women with advanced OC.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $6000 in 2020 ($30,000 in total 2019 - 2021)
Supported by: P New


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