2021 Cancer Council WA Research Fellowships

Our Research Fellowships fund outstanding biomedical and health researchers working in the field of cancer so they can undertake research of major importance. They provide salary support for up to five years with the aim of advancing the quality and impact of cancer research in WA and promoting collaboration and partnerships, locally, nationally and internationally.

Full list of 2021 Cancer Council WA Research Fellowships:

Project title:  How does impaired energy production cause prostate cancer?
Lead researcher:  Prof Aleksandra Filipovska
Institution:  The University of Western Australia
Research description:

Prostate cancer is one of the six most common cancers in the world; the incidence rates of this cancer vary due to genetic and environmental factors. Several genes are responsible for the development of sporadic and, in particular the gene ELAC2 is one of the most relevant candidate genes for prostate cancer. Many mutations have been identified in ELAC2 that predispose to prostate cancer. Unfortunately, it is not known how these mutations cause prostate cancer. We have generated mice containing ELAC2 mutations and develop prostate malignancy that closely mirrors the prostate cancer pathogenesis in humans.

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is the only screening biomarker for prostate cancer but because it is not always produced by malignant cells, this biomarker is not entirely reliable since it can generate false results. There is an urgent need for identification and validation of biomarkers and prostate cancer genes. Our study will be the first to address both of those needs.

Funding from Cancer Council WA:  $20,000 for 2021 ($80,000  in total for 2019-2022)
Supported by: The Ladies of the Guild of Saint Richard (Inc)


[return to top]


Project title: Developing blood tests to guide treatment of melanoma
Lead researcher: A/Prof Elin Gray
Institution: Edith Cowan University
Project description:

Melanoma now represents a significantly increased proportion of cases in clinical oncology departments, with melanoma incidence increasing worldwide and in Australia. Once melanoma has spread through the body, the average (or usual or expected) survival is six to nine months, with a five year survival rate of less than 40 per cent. The recent implementation of new treatments has improved patient outcomes and survival. However, there is an urgent need for a better test to guide the doctors while they are treating their patients.

The proposed studies aim to develop tests that can be done from a blood sample. These tests make use of new technologies to test for evidence of markers derived from the growth (tumour) found in the blood of patients with melanoma. These markers could serve as a guide of what is going on in the cancer. A/Prof Gray aims to demonstrate that in melanoma, these tests can effectively and accurately provide the oncologists with information about the growths, for them to take better informed treatment decisions.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $100,000 for 2021 ($400,000 in total for 2019-2022)
Supported by: Olga Zampedri


[return to top]


Project title: Improving psychosocial support and education for patients diagnosed with brain or head and neck cancer and their carers
Leader researcher: A/Prof Georgia Halkett
Institution: Curtin University
Project description:

Being diagnosed with brain or head and neck cancer is distressing as it is often life threatening, and has a large impact on people physically and/or mentally. Hence, it is essential that education and support programs are developed and tested to reduce distress and unmet needs for people diagnosed with these cancers and their carers. Two programs have been developed:

1. Radiotherapy Prepare program

This program focuses on preparing people for radiotherapy. Little research has been conducted in this area. This team's work in preparing people diagnosed with breast cancer for radiotherapy is recognised internationally; however, this program needs to be refined for people with other cancers. Receiving radiotherapy for brain cancer or head and neck cancer may cause distress due to the head mask they must wear to stop them moving and side effects they might experience. People receiving radiotherapy for head and neck cancer are at risk of severe skin reactions, dry mouth, oral discomfort, mouth ulcers, infections, difficulty chewing and swallowing, impaired taste and extreme weight loss. People receiving radiotherapy for brain cancer may fear side effects such as headaches, hair loss, nausea, extreme tiredness, hearing loss, skin changes, speech difficulties and seizures. Education and support provided by the radiotherapy team before treatment is likely to reduce their anxiety and help them manage side effects. Research methods for this program will include interviews, development and testing of the education packages and a large scale clinical trial. Main outcomes will include anxiety and distress, concerns and knowledge about radiotherapy and how prepared they feel for treatment.

2. Carer's Education and Support Program

This program focuses on improving a carer's confidence to look after their loved one after a cancer diagnosis and reducing their level of distress. This research focuses on carers of patients diagnosed with brain cancer or head and neck cancer because these groups would benefit most from extra support. If carers are unable to support their loved one, it is likely that the person with cancer may need additional emergency room visits or hospital admissions. During the program a nurse conducts a telephone assessment, visits the carer at home, provides an individualised resource manual and regular telephone follow-up for 12 months. This program is currently being tested in a randomised controlled trial with carers of people with brain cancer. It needs to be adapted and tested for carers of people with head and neck cancer. Research into these two programs is essential to improve the education and support provided to individuals and their carers following a diagnosis with either brain cancer or head and neck cancer. The team will also determine the cost of providing these programs and the impact they have on overall healthcare costs.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $43,024 for 2021 ($460,000 in total for 2017-2023)
Supported by: Gilmac (WA) Pty Ltd & Jill Lally for Robert Lally


[return to top]


Project title: Improving detection and therapy in treatment-resistant cancers
Lead researcher: Dr Juliana Hamzah
Institution: The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Project description:

This research program will potentially benefit patients suffering from treatment-resistant cancers such as triple negative breast cancer and liver cancers. Approximately one in eight Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 85. Similarly, liver cancer is the third leading cause of death in Australia. Treatment options that include conventional chemotherapeutics are currently ineffective.

Dr Hamzah has identified tumour stiffness as the major problem in breast and liver cancers. Tumour stiffness is caused by the over-production of non-cellular matrix components that protect tumour cells from being accessible to anti-cancer drugs. Consequently, the stiffer the tumour matrix, the more resistant it is to drug therapy. Recently, this team has developed a new medication and treatment to specifically dissolve tumour stiffness. Degradation of matrix stiffness effectively exposes the tumour cells to anti-cancer medications. Dr Hamzah's goal is to explore the use of this drug to treat breast and liver cancers.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $120,000 for 2021 ($480,000 in total for 2018-2021)
Supported by: Jill Tilly


[return to top]


Project title: Towards targeting treatment-resistant cancer cells to prevent relapse in childhood leukaemia
Lead researcher: Dr Sébastien Malinge
Institution: Telethon Kids Institute
Project description:

Acute leukaemia is the most common type of cancer seen in children (>200 cases per year in Australia). Although treatments and outcomes have improved remarkably, leukaemia remains the second highest cause of death by cancer in children. Furthermore, many children still suffer from treatment toxicity or develop relapse. These clinical features are exacerbated in children with Down syndrome (DS).

This study aims to identify the treatment-resistant cells that are responsible for relapse, and discover new methods to destroy them. The study will use animal models to reproduce the standard therapy used in clinics and add two promising drugs to destroy these cells. The study will also look for agents that improve the efficacy of these two drugs, and extend to non-DS children with leukaemia that have a similar molecular makeup to DS children. Outcomes from this study are to develop new treatments for clinicians to improve the quality of care and long-term survival of West Australian children with leukaemia.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $120,000 in 2021 ($480,000 in total for 2020-2023)
Supported by: Nannup Craft and Quilting Group


[return to top]

Project title: Empowering the immune system to attack melanoma and other advanced cancers
Lead researcher: Dr Jason Waithman
Institution: Telethon Kids Institute
Project description:

Melanoma is Australia's third most common cancer resulting in the ninth highest number of cancer-related deaths. There is traditionally a poor prognosis once it spreads. New treatments that harness the immune system can cure many people with advanced melanoma. However, there is urgent need to help patients that aren't responding to these immunotherapies. To address this, the research strategy focuses on the following aims: to improve the body's immune system to fight cancer and thereby increase the number of patients surviving; to help the immune system to better detect and attack cancer cells, which leads to saving lives; to understand how the immune system can be improved to stop the spread of melanoma cancer in the brain - this is critical as it is a very poor prognosis once in the brain; and to understand how specific immune cells might offer protection from skin cancer and keep tumours dormant, thereby directly saving lives.

The purpose of this research is to gain more insight into how the immune system interacts with cancer cells and develop new ways to make the immune system fight cancer. To do this the research work focuses on T cells, which recognise and marshal an attack against diseased cells.
The team are engineering T cells with additional capabilities, making them more able to eradicate tumour cells. They are also generating a vaccine that causes T cells to multiply so they can overwhelm cancer cells and eliminate them.

As melanoma frequently spreads to the brain, the team are also investigating how an immune response is directed against tumours within the brain and testing whether the new therapies are effective.

Also, tumours can remain dormant for prolonged periods of time and patients can live normally. Little is known about how this occurs. The team will identify the role of the immune system in tumour dormancy, which will lead to new therapeutic approaches that convert aggressive cancer into a stable chronic condition.

Through this work the intention is to identify multiple ways to drive and enhance T cell immunity against cancer. This research will save lives by improving the overall survival rate, especially in patients currently deemed terminal and non-responsive to immunotherapy.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $120,000 in 2021 ($480,000 total for 2018-2021)
Fully supported: in the name of the Rosemary Grant Zaks Melanoma Research Fellowship


[return to top]