2022 Cancer Council WA Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour Initiative

The objective of the Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour Initiative is to direct funds to advance the diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal stromal cancer.



Project title: Harnessing the immune system to fight Gastro Intestinal Stromal Tumours
Lead researcher: Prof Ruth Ganss
Institution: The University of Western Australia
Project description:

Gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GIST) arise from digestive organs, for instance the stomach and intestine. If the cancer is discovered early, surgical removal may lead to a cure, but some cancers re-grow even after surgery. Advanced GIST have already spread to distant organs and in most cases are treated with a drug called Imatinib or Gleevec. Most advanced GIST patients respond well to this drug which slows cancer growth. However, 90% of patients eventually become non-responsive to the drug due to drug resistance, enabling the cancer to progress and spread.

New treatments are urgently needed to overcome drug resistance. One of the most exciting clinical development in recent years is the advent of immunotherapy. Immunotherapy harnesses the body's own immune system to fight cancer. This treatment is already used for some advanced cancers such as melanoma, often with dramatic results. However, so far GIST has not been considered for immunotherapy. New research published in 2020 indicates that some GIST patients (approximately 50%) spontaneously display lymph node like structures which promote immune cell trafficking and indicate better overall survival.

This research proposal will build on these findings using our expertise in the field and incorporate a unique animal model to test how these lymph nodes can be induced to optimize immunotherapy. For this aim human cancers will be grown in a mouse which harbours a human immune system; this is currently the best model system for studying immunotherapy effects.

We will also collect clinical GIST cancer specimen and examine the numbers and characteristics of spontaneous lymph nodes by developing a new detection system. We expect that this will be useful to identify those GIST patients who will benefit from immunotherapy.

Overall, the goal of the project is to provide GIST cancer patients with new immunebased
treatment options by combining already available drugs, to overcome resistance and prolong survival.


Funding from Cancer Council WA: $154,668 in 2022 (total $978,950 for 2018-2024)
Fully supported: In the name of the initiative for cancer research into the diagnosis and treatment of Gastro Intestinal Stromal Cancer through the provision of the late Sandra O'Keefe by including a gift in her Will to make this research possible.