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Centenary Institute - Medical Research
Centenary Institute - Medical Research

Perfect pitch prize winner

Centenary Institute PhD candidate Ms Aster Pijning has won the jury’s vote for first prize as well as the people’s choice prize for her efforts at the Sydney Catalyst Perfect Pitch Competition.

The competition was a chance for participating researchers to refine their ‘elevator pitch’ and to describe their research skills and experience to a virtual audience and a panel of judges in 60 seconds.

“For my PhD research I’m studying the molecular mechanisms of thrombosis, and I have discovered a new regulatory pathway that fine tunes how and when blood clots form. We now want to look into why this control mechanism is absent in cancer associated thrombosis,” said Ms Pijning

“In the 60 seconds, I spoke about my research, as well as my passion for understanding the biological origins of disease with the goal of unravelling disease complexity for the benefit of the patient.”

“The pitch really forced me to think about what parts of my research would be interesting for people to hear, excluding any scientific jargon, and also to think about my personal motivations for doing what I do,” she said.

This was Aster’s winning pitch:

Hi, my name is Aster and I’m a PhD student studying the molecular mechanisms behind cancer-associated blood clotting.

Did you know that people with cancer are 5 times more likely to develop obstructive blood clots?

10 years ago, I lost a close friend to an unknown disease. I found it incredible that we understand so much, and yet so little, of our own biology. My passion lies in understanding the biological origins of disease and unravelling its complexity for the benefit of the patient. I have learned to combine my knowledge of highly specialized techniques to look at blood clotting at a single molecule level. In doing so I have discovered a new control mechanism that finetunes how and when blood clots form.

I now want to understand how this control mechanism is lost in cancer, with the goal of identifying people at risk of cancer associated blood clotting as early as possible.

I rely on both patients and healthy people to donate their blood for my research. Would you want to be a part of this discovery by donating yours?

Fighting throat cancer with T cells

Research led by the Centenary Institute has discovered that immune cells accumulating within the tumour environment, called tumour-resident T cells, are a critical determinant in survival rates of patients suffering from throat cancer.

Reported in the prestigious ‘Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer’, the research suggests that strategies aiming to boost these T-cells at tumour sites could be beneficial to patients.

“Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) is a form of throat cancer. It can be caused by environmental factors such as smoking or by human papillomavirus infection (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women,” said Ms Rehana Hewavisenti (pictured left), lead author of the study and researcher at the Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney.

“We knew that patients with HPV-related OPSCC had far better clinical outcomes compared to other OPSCC patients but we didn’t know why,” she said.

In examining over sixty patient samples, Ms Hewavisenti and her colleagues discovered that increased levels of tumour-resident T cells, whether in HPV or non-HPV OPSCC cases, was clearly associated with improved patient survival outcomes.

“It was the accumulation of these immune T-cells, in and around the tumour site that appeared to be key,” said Ms Hewavisenti.

The researchers also found in their study that HPV OPSCC patients generally had far higher levels of tumour-resident T cells compared to their non-HPV OPSCC patient counterparts.

“We think these HPV positive patients tended to have better clinical outcomes as HPV infection is likely to favour the accumulation of these beneficial T-cells within the tumour area,” she said.

Dr Mainthan Palendira (pictured right), Head of the Centenary Institute’s Human Viral and Cancer Immunology Laboratory and senior author on the research paper believes the research findings have major implications.

“Now that we understand how important this immune response is in relation to OPSCC, we can begin developing new treatment strategies focused on recruiting these favourable tumour-resident T cells directly to tumours,” he said.

Dr Palendira believes that looking at the amount of these T-cells in cancer could help clinicians to personalise the best treatment approach for individual patients.

“We also think that our research demonstrating viral (HPV) links with this tumour-resident T cell accumulation could help in future cancer vaccine development efforts too,” he said.

Read the full media release here.

Outstanding cancer researcher acknowledged

Dr Ulf Schmitz, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Computational BioMedicine Laboratory has been recognised as an outstanding investigator in the field of cancer research, being awarded an NHMRC Investigator Grant.

The grant, which will support Dr Schmitz and his exploration of post-transcriptional gene regulation in cancer over the next five years, will commence in 2021.

“Healthy cells normally undergo regulatory processes that turn DNA into proteins but when this process becomes distorted cancer cells are formed. My research is to understand the bio-mechanisms that control this gene regulation activity. By improving our understanding of gene regulation and its role in cancer, we can offer new opportunities for better diagnosis, and treatment,” said Dr Schmitz.

The NHMRC Investigator Grant scheme supports the research programs of outstanding investigators at all career stages with funding as well as research support packages. Further information on the grants can be found on the NHMRC website here.

Information on Dr Schmitz and his research can be found here.

Centenary Institute receives Cancer Council NSW grants

Cancer Council NSW has awarded funding to 14 ground-breaking cancer research projects including three to the Centenary Institute.

Successful Centenary Institute recipients and their research initiatives are:

Professor Geoff McCaughan, Head of the Centenary Institute Liver Injury and Cancer Program. Project: A new approach to target liver cancer.

“Liver cancer is one of the deadliest cancers and is the sixth leading cause of cancer death in Australia. Current therapies for advanced liver cancer are limited and generally only grant a few months of added survival time for the patient. This project will investigate the use of combination therapies for treating liver cancer – an approach which has not yet been widely investigated. We will be using two potential new drug treatments that will target the cancer cells, the surrounding blood vessels and the immune system within the tumour,” said Professor McCaughan

Professor John Rasko AO, Head of the Centenary Institute Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Project: Monitoring and predicting clinical response to immunotherapy against pancreatic cancer and asbestos-induced lung cancer.

“Pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma (asbestos-induced lung cancer) are among those cancers currently lacking effective treatments, resulting in poor outcomes with five-year survival rates of less than 10%. More than 3,000 and 700 new cases of pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma, respectively, are annually diagnosed in Australia. This project will use the body’s killer immune cells (T-cells) and endow them with the information as to how to recognise and attack cancer cells (an approach known as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy),” said Professor Rasko.

Dr Ulf Schmitz, Head of the Centenary Institute Computational BioMedicine Laboratory within the Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program and University of Sydney. Project: Deciphering the cross-talk between microRNAs and retained introns in cancer gene regulation.

“This project will investigate a regulatory process known as ‘intron retention’, in both breast cancer and leukaemia. The process allows unwanted ‘junk DNA’ to enter the cell and interfere with other regulatory processes. Intron retention has been found to play a critical role in cancer development, but little is known about the underlying mechanism. Computer models and experimental methods will be used to establish how this process works, potentially opening up an entirely new field of cancer research,” said Dr Schmitz.

The Centenary Institute wishes to thank Cancer Council NSW for their support of our researchers who continue to pursue life-changing and life-saving medical research.

Full details of all successful Cancer Council NSW grants are available online here.

Connecting with the community

Some of our leading cancer researchers, Professor Phil Hansbro, Professor Peter Hersey, Dr Mainthan Palendira and Dr Jessamy Tiffen have presented their project updates and recent findings to consumers and supporters at our recent consumer engagement session.

The projects, all funded by Cancer Council NSW, covered the critical health areas of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) and lung cancer.

The engagement sessions allow Centenary scientists to connect directly with the community and  ensures that consumers are an integral part of the total research process.

Updates provided at the session were: 

  • Professor Phil Hansbro, Centenary Institute Deputy Director and Head of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation. Could our gut bacteria play a role in lung cancer?
  • Professor Peter Hersey, Head of the Melanoma Immunology and Oncology Program / Dr Helen McGuire (University of Sydney). Epigenetic targeting of T cell dysfunction in patients failing immunotherapy
  • Dr Mainthan Palendira, Head of the Human Viral and Cancer Immunology Laboratory. The role of tumour-resident CD8+ T cells in metastatic melanoma and immunotherapy
  • Dr Jessamy Tiffen, Senior Research Officer in the Melanoma Immunology and Oncology Program. Place your BETs – Discovering new drug combinations for melanoma treatment

The Centenary Institute would like to thank all consumers and attendees at this session for their interest in improving human health outcomes, and continuing support of our life-saving medical research activities. 

Prime7 News – featuring Professor Philip Hogg

Professor Philip Hogg, Deputy Director at the Centenary Institute and Head of the ACRF Centenary Cancer Research Centre has been interviewed by Prime7 News on the launch of the ACRF Tumour Metabolism Laboratory – part of the ACRF Centenary Cancer Research Centre.

The laboratory, established by a $2.5M grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation to the Centenary Institute (together with additional support from the Cancer Institute NSW and the University of Sydney) is dedicated to the study of tumour cell metabolism, down to a molecular level. This knowledge is then utilised in the development of innovative new cancer diagnostics, treatments and cures.

Click here for the Prime7 news story about Professor Hogg and the laboratory’s exciting work on outsmarting cancer cells.

New cancer laboratory launches

The ACRF Tumour Metabolism Laboratory – part of the ACRF Centenary Cancer Research Centre – has been officially launched with the laboratory sporting the latest in advanced equipment and technology to help support its innovative cancer research. Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally.

The laboratory, established by a $2.5M grant from Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) and in collaboration with the Centenary Institute, is dedicated to the study of tumour cell metabolism, at a molecular level. The team then utilise this knowledge to develop new cancer diagnostics, treatments and cures.

“Cancer cells, like all the cells in our body, require nutrients from our diet to survive and to flourish,” says Professor Philip Hogg, Deputy Director, Centenary Institute and Head, ACRF Centenary Cancer Research Centre.

“While our healthy cells mostly produce energy from these nutrients, cancer cells use them to suit their malignant purpose – which is to divide as rapidly as they can. They aggressively soak up the nutrients in their environment and convert them into the components of new cancer cells – that is DNA, protein and lipids. The focus of this laboratory is to understand how cancer cells change their metabolism. If we can successfully stop the cancer cells from changing their metabolism then we can use this knowledge as a basis for developing exciting new anti-cancer therapies.”

The state-of-the-art equipment available to the researchers at the ACRF Tumour Metabolism Laboratory allows for the precise measurement – down to the nanoscale – of the sugars, proteins and lipids that are consumed by the cancer cells.

“ACRF is delighted to have backed this program which will return significant research findings. Our support, through the provision of equipment for the research has been supplemented by a collaborative funding arrangement with Cancer Institute NSW who have assisted with complementary funding for research personnel. We so value the work that Professor Hogg and his team do to help deliver our supporters’ ambition to Outsmart Cancer,” says Kerry Strydom, CEO, Australian Cancer Research Foundation.

Pictured: Mr Tom Dery AO, Chairman ACRF (left) and Prof Phil Hogg, Head ACRF Centenary Cancer Research Centre (right).

Read the full media release here.

New Centenary Institute laboratory launched

The Centenary Institute has officially launched its newest initiative, ‘The David Richmond Laboratory for Cardiovascular Development: Gene Regulation and Editing’ headed up by Associate Professor Mathias Francois (pictured).

A/Prof Francois and his team will be focused on identifying new and innovative therapeutic approaches targeting vascular disease (any abnormal condition relating to arteries, capillaries, veins and lymphatic vessels). Abnormalities in the growth and development of these vessels are associated with human disorders including cardiovascular illness, solid cancer metastasis and inflammatory diseases.

With many of these diseases and disorders having a genetic cause, the team will be looking to determine the molecular events that direct and influence the construction of the ‘vascular tree’ (the network of blood and lymph vessels throughout the body). The aim will be the identification of molecular targets to which novel therapeutics can be first assessed and then generated.

The main focus of the research program will revolve around the biology of a class of protein known as transcription factors (TFs). These proteins act as molecular switches or as the control panel of the genome to turn on and off genetic pathways which drive vascular development.

Until recently TFs were labelled as “undruggable” but recent technology advances have opened up new research directions to efficiently manipulate these targets pharmacologically. The long term goal is to design new treatments that fine-tune gene expression to improve the management of vascular disorders.

Undertaking a highly strategic methodology to this activity, the new laboratory’s research program will be multi-disciplinary in nature, encompassing developmental biology, disease model systems, complemented by biophysics and genomics approaches.

“I’m extremely excited to be joining such a well-regarded and thriving organisation as the Centenary Institute,” says A/Prof Francois. “The appeal of this institution is in the versatility of the research capabilities provided by such world-class scientists.”

“Working in a new research environment with new colleagues from complementary research fields will mean new ideas and more opportunities to think out of the box. This process is  critical to translate knowledge generated from discovery science to more applied vascular research, which hopefully will lead into meaningful treatments that have the potential to change lives,” he says.

Centenary Institute research boost with NHMRC Investigator Grants

Professor Philip Hansbro, Deputy Director at the Centenary Institute and Professor John Rasko AO, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program have both been awarded prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grants. The Investigator Grants scheme is one of the NHMRC’s new flagship funding arrangements supporting outstanding health and medical researchers.

Professor Philip Hansbro’s funding will support further research into the development of new preventions and treatments for chronic respiratory diseases.

“Respiratory diseases are among the leading causes of all deaths world-wide,” says Professor Hansbro.

“This grant will fund our research into developing a comprehensive ‘molecular map’ for specific respiratory diseases including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer and severe asthma. This will increase our knowledge of how these diseases develop and progress, providing us with new opportunities to attempt treatments and cures.”

Professor John Rasko AO, Head of the Centenary Institute’s Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program and Head of Department, Cell & Molecular Therapies at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital will receive funding for his research focused on driving clinical cell and gene therapy in Australia.

“Harnessing the power of our body’s own cells and genetic therapies, we are witnessing a medical revolution in curing serious diseases including hereditary bleeding and anaemia as well as specific forms of cancer. This new federal funding will facilitate our internationally acclaimed basic and clinical research Program designed to improve the health of Australians”, says Professor Rasko.

Read the full media release here.

Centenary scientists recognised for their world-class cancer research

Pictured: Dr Justin Wong and Mr Kurtis Budden (who accepted on behalf of Professor Phil Hansbro) at the Awards Ceremony, March 14, 2019.

Cancer Council NSW has awarded funding to 13 ground-breaking cancer research projects including two to the Centenary Institute – Dr Justin Wong, Head of our Epigenetics and RNA Biology Program for his research ‘Understanding the mechanisms that cause acute myeloid leukaemia’ and Professor Phil Hansbro, Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation for his project ‘Could our gut bacteria play a role in lung cancer?’

“We are extremely proud to announce another round of extraordinary projects in 2019. We are confident these projects will provide incredible value to cancer patients and continue to push our progress towards a cancer free future,” said Dr Jane Hobson, Research Grants Manager at Cancer Council NSW.

Funds have been awarded to projects deemed through peer review to be of the highest scientific merit; and through consumer review to be of the most value to the community supporting Cancer Council.

Read the full Cancer Council NSW media release

Learn more about the work of Professor Phil Hansbro and Dr Justin Wong.