Impact of Gifts to Date
Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women worldwide, and what's driven me, in terms of research is really to be able to make a difference to people's lives. What we are really interested in trying to find out is trying to detect cancer cells within the blood. These cancer cells could be an indication of how aggressive the tumour is. We're trying to use the blood instead of using a tissue biopsy because it is a lot less invasive for the patients, because it's just a matter of taking blood, so ultimately we hope to be able to develop a diagnostic assay that doctors can use in the clinic, so that they can better treat their patients. What I'm focusing on is using high resolution microscopy to examine different bio-markers for expression or lack of expression in cancer. If we can take blood samples from somebody, and we can screen these markers, and if we can detect what's known as circulating tumour cells, with a particular pattern, we map out or predict if that person's going to get a recurrence of cancer after they've recovered from their primary cancer. I think it's really fulfilling to see that the work that we have done in the lab to try and get that directly to the patients. Gives us a little bit more push and drive to actually achieve the goals that we want to achieve. It's good to feel like you're making a contribution, and when we speak to people that suffer from these diseases or the clinicians that are working closely with these patients, it makes you feel really good, and it puts everything back into perspective, what we're doing. This sort of work is extremely expensive, because all the reagents cost a lot of money. It's dependent on technology, which costs a lot of money. We need expertise of researchers who can carry out this work. Funding from the community, even small parts of, bits of money are crucial to keep the work progressing rapidly. The donation really is an encouragement for us as well. Knowing that people believe in our work. Everybody knows somebody that's been hit by cancer, and for me, I want to be able to make a difference in that. I want to be able to help detect cancer early, where traditional therapies can do something about it. This would be a major breakthrough for people worldwide who suffer from cancer. I know a little girl who has a mum that will live for longer, or children who've got their parents for longer, and that's the whole difference that the community makes.
We have come a long way in 12 months, thanks to donor support
Detecting cancer stem cells in the blood.
Over the past 12 months Professor Rao’s team have collected sufficient evidence to provide proof of concept for their metastatic cancer blood test. The test detects aggressive metastatic cancer cells in the blood stream providing early, accurate, and non-invasive diagnosis of metastatic cancer. The team are now able to detect one metastatic cell in 5ml of blood at an unprecedented resolution. This work has been made possible thanks to donor funds.
The test, however, does more than just provide indication of metastatic cancer. The team believes they are one of the first labs worldwide to detect a resistance marker at the epigenetic level. The marker appears to predict whether a patient will respond to a cancer treatment. Oncologists currently have no reliable information to base their treatment decisions on, often resulting in successive rounds of unsuccessful treatment before the right treatment is found. Further development of this approach will allow personalised treatment approaches to become standard practice.
“When people get diagnosed with metastatic cancer, the most important thing to them becomes time.” says lead researcher Professor Rao. “Matching patients with the right treatments will ensure they receive as much time and quality of life as possible.”
With proof of concept now in place the research team will continue to build the statistical evidence required for the test to be used with patients in a clinical setting.
Combination therapy breast cancer trial
In August of this year the research team commenced a human trial for their novel breast cancer treatment. Prior research has shown that the treatment can eliminate breast cancer tumours and prevent the cancer recurring. The human trial is an important step in building evidence to support the team’s prior findings and to bring the treatment one step closer to being available to patients.
The human trial is being conducted in partnership with oncologists at The Canberra Hospital with a small group of metastatic breast cancer patients from the Canberra region. The research team have deployed their metastatic cancer blood test as part of the human trial removing the need for invasive tissue biopsies.
The study participants undertake nine treatment visits across three 4-week treatment cycles. Blood samples are taken prior to treatment, at the start of each of the three treatment cycles, and post treatment. Each blood test will be analysed for the presence of circulating cancer stem cells, with the resulting counts providing evidence of the effectiveness of the treatment and the potential for resistance.
Results of the trial are expected to be available in 2018.
Expansion of cancer research focus areas
The third key advancement over the past 12 months has been to secure funding to expand the types of cancers the research team covers.
The research currently focuses on breast cancer, melanoma and lung cancer. In the near future the team’s research will expand to brain cancer. This expansion has been 100% donor funded.
There has been little improvement in the survival rate for brain cancer in the past 30 years due to the many challenges of treating the brain. Chief amongst the challenges is the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a clever mechanism the body employs to prevent toxic substances in the blood affecting the brain. It’s crucial to your survival if you were bitten by a snake but also means that most current cancer therapies are blocked from reaching the brain.
The research team will test whether their novel therapies are capable of passing through the blood-brain barrier. If they do we are hopeful our unique treatment approach will be able to target brain cancer in ways current treatments cannot, leading to a much needed breakthrough in this space.
The next steps
Donations from the community have allowed the University to advance cancer research when no other funding has been available. That, in turn, has allowed the team to produce more evidence in support of the research approach that is now bringing other funders, from industry and government, to the table. In essence every gift has had a multiplier effect, allowing for the research to be advanced in the short term, and creating opportunities for long-term research funding and collaboration.
In order to take our research to the next level our next focus is to secure funding to purchase new clinical grade research equipment. The new equipment will allow us to cross-examine blood cells in three different ways – providing unprecedented resolution that will ensure accuracy of diagnostics and accuracy of treatment. Most importantly the machinery is automated and will provide the research team with the ability to process and screen large numbers of samples from large numbers of patients more quickly.
There is woefully little funding available through traditional research funding channels for equipment, making donor support in this space vital. We need $900,000 to give our brilliant researchers access to the to the most state-of-the art equipment available.
We could not have progressed this far without donor support, this research will produce a major breakthrough worldwide for people who suffer from cancer. I want to achieve that breakthrough so that children will have their parents live for longer and a little girl will grow up knowing her mother. Ultimately that is the true difference donor support will make.”
- Professor Sudha Rao