Boost for breast, bowel and melanoma research

May 13 2015

Dr Nikki Verrills

Two HMRI-funded researchers from the University of Newcastle have secured a further $1 million in grants from Cancer Council NSW to focus on discovering new methods of curbing and treating cancer.

The funding will support the laboratory-based research of Dr Nikki Verrills for breast cancer and Professor Xu Dong Zhang for bowel cancer and melanoma.

Dr Verrills is working on testing a new gene marker that can predict which breast cancer patients won’t respond well to current therapies, and therefore should be offered new therapies. This study could lead directly to human trials, which could help thousands of women who are affected by breast cancer each year.

“While we have seen significant improvements in breast cancer treatments over the past decade, breast cancer still kills far too many women, with almost 3,000 Australian women losing their lives to this disease every year,” she said.

“This project aims to develop a predictive test to determine who will or will not respond to standard therapy. Importantly, we will also perform pre-clinical studies to test a new therapeutic approach for these non-responsive breast cancers.

“By concentrating on those patients who we know would not otherwise survive, we are addressing a major clinical need, and ultimately hope that this new strategy of personalised therapy will result in more patients surviving this disease.”

Importantly, Dr Verrills has discovered that breast cancer cells with this gene marker are sensitive to a drug that is already in clinical use for other cancers. Therefore if successful, the study could lead directly to human trials, with the ultimate goal of curing those patients for whom currently no cure exists.

Professor Xu Dong Zhang said he and his team were very grateful for the continued support from the Cancer Council and the community, with both of his projects having been pilot funded by HMRI.

“The funding will go towards the team’s persistent efforts at getting closer to beating cancer,” he said.

Professor Zhang has demonstrated that a protein called RIP1 is abnormally expressed in melanoma cells and plays an important role in melanoma cell survival and resistance to treatment – the next step is to inhibit RIP1, either alone or in combination with other drugs, as a novel approach in the treatment of melanoma.

In this bowel cancer project, Professor Zhang has identified that elevated levels of the gene INPP4B could be a biomarker and therapeutic target. Less than 40% of bowel cancers are noticed at early stages, and patients with late-stage bowel cancer often die due to drug resistance.

*Professor Zhang is a Co-Director of the Priority Research Centre for Cancer at the University of Newcastle and a Deputy Director of the HMRI Cancer Program. Dr Verrills researches in conjunction with the HMRI Cancer program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.