2003 – $1 million research grant

Types of Cancer: Leukaemia, Prostate Cancer, Breast Cancer

Research Institution: Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Director of Research: Professor David Bowtell

Feature Outcome:

Purchase of a new transmission electron microscope, confocal imaging system for live cells, digital imaging workstation and fluorescence capability improvements for DNA and RNA analysis. The equipment forms the centrepiece of the ACRF Cell Biology Program at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, housed in a dedicated Microscopy Core within the Cell Biology Program.

Research Focus:

The continuing development of advanced imaging for basic research and in the clinic. Through accurate and non-invasive monitoring of tumour progression, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre will be addressing significant unmet needs to improve patient outcomes.

Further Details / Outcomes:

Understanding the function of proteins at the cellular and subcellular level in living systems is possible due to recent developments in optical and computational technology. Static snapshots of a particular cellular state can now be complemented by real-time digital movies illustrating the effects of specific proteins on cell development, organisation and fate over extended periods of time.

The enormous possibilities that these technologies provide are balanced by a requirement for substantial and ongoing expenditure to compete in this area. These technologies are evolving in complexity, expense and becoming increasingly specialised so an imaging program requires a number of dedicated imaging units.

Key questions addressed by researchers and clinicians at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre include:

  • Which genes are most important in specific cancers?
  • How do cancer-causing genes function in the cell to control cell growth, replication or death and to promote metastasis?
  • How can the immune system be best armed and activated to protect against the development of cancer and to eliminate residual cancer cells remaining after chemotherapy or radiation therapy?
  • How do stem cells function and can they be further exploited therapeutically?

All of these questions rely upon microscopy from the most basic to the most sophisticated confocal microscopy, covering, for example, interactions in living cells, pathways by which T-cell proteins enter and kill cancer cells. Advanced microscopic techniques and hardware are absolutely pivotal to the research program at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

The Centre’s Cancer Immunology program comprises 45 researchers performing basic and applied research aimed at understanding how the immune system guards against cancer development and what may go wrong with this process in clinical cancer. The immunotherapy program is aimed at harnessing the power of the immune system to devise novel cancer therapies

The work is important because it enables the Centre to understand how cancer cells can escape the immune system and therefore how it might stimulate the immune system to combat cancer.

Exciting findings have been made looking at tissue architecture and the microenvironment of tumours , indicating the molecular pathways by which a novel set of proteins suppress or prevent tumour formation. The project enables identification of genes and the manner by which they function in initiation and progression of tumours

Thirdly, investigation is being conducted into the regulation of apoptosis (normal programmed cell death) by certain proteins and their importance in tumour progression.

In addition a second part of this program will identify the genes that regulate breast cancer metastasis to specific sites. Metastasis is a complex process in which cells migrate from the primary tumour through connective tissue to the blood or lymphatic system and to distant sites such as the lung, liver and bone. The study will establish a gene profile that will predict the subsequent metastatic behaviour of a primary breast tumour. Genes found which regulate metastasis will be important targets for new molecular therapies.

Fourthly, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is looking at Stem Cells in Cancer Therapy. Blood cell formation normally takes place in the bone marrow where stem cells reside. Following disease, chemo or radiotherapy there is serious compromise of the function. Reconstitution or reestablishment can occur by intravenously infused cells and the work is aimed at understanding critical molecules involved in the regulation of stem cells within the bone marrow.