Cancer Council NSW Program Grant funds our multi-faceted leukaemia research
December 19, 2015
Cancer Council NSW has awarded Children’s Cancer Institute its fourth consecutive 5-year Program Grant to research ways of improving treatments for children with ‘refractory’ acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) – in other words, children diagnosed with a high-risk subtype of the disease, or who have received treatment and have subsequently relapsed.
While most children with ALL now respond well to treatment, around 10% are at high risk of relapse. If improved treatment results are to be attained, research efforts need to be directed towards discovery of new drugs, better and safer delivery of existing drugs, and leukaemia prevention strategies.
Five research teams – led by Professors Michelle Haber, Murray Norris, Glenn Marshall, Maria Kavallaris and Richard Lock – will each conduct research from a variety of perspectives, using different techniques and technologies.
Professors Haber and Norris will focus on infants under the age of one, many of whom have ‘mixed lineage leukaemia’ (MLL), a form of disease caused by specific genetic alterations which confer a particularly poor prognosis. Haber and Norris have already identified very promising small molecules that kill MLL cells in the laboratory. Their task now will be to create more stable versions of these molecules for translation to the clinic.
Professor Marshall has long had an interest in finding ways to prevent childhood cancers, and recently he has identified small molecules that appear to be effective at preventing ALL in preclinical models of disease. He will investigate potential ways of translating those findings into the clinic.
In addition to holding a senior research position at Children’s Cancer Institute, Professor Kavallaris is also Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at UNSW Australia. She will use nanotechnology to find safer, more targeted, ways of delivering drugs straight to ALL cells.
Professor Richard Lock will continue his work in testing the most promising experimental drugs in preclinical models of ALL, with the aim of fast-tracking new treatments to the clinic.
Past Cancer Council Program Grants helped Haber, Norris and Marshall to develop a revolutionary diagnostic technology that improves the survival rates of children with ALL. The ‘Minimal Residual Disease’ (MRD) test can detect one leukaemia cell among a million normal bone marrow cells, alerting clinicians to the need for intensified treatment.
MRD testing, with appropriate follow up treatment, has halved the relapse rate in high risk children. It is now “standard of care” for children diagnosed with ALL – nationally and internationally.
This MRD work will be extended with the help of the current program grant. MRD Manager, Associate Professor Rosemary Sutton, will work with her team to profile the leukaemia cells of patients – past and present – who have failed therapy and relapsed. They will look for common molecular ‘markers’ that might indicate why treatments failed, and at the same time guide future treatment of patients.
The research leaders on this Program Grant are confident as a group that they will help improve survival rates and health of survivors by discovering new drugs, reducing the toxic impact of current drugs, and by developing new personalised treatment strategies.
About Children’s Cancer Institute
Originally founded by two fathers of children with cancer in 1976, Children’s Cancer Institute is the only independent medical research institute in Australia wholly dedicated to research into the causes, prevention and cure of childhood cancer. Forty years on, our vision is to save the lives of all children with cancer and improve their long-term health, through research. The Institute has grown to now employ nearly 300 researchers, operational staff and students, and has established a national and international reputation for scientific excellence.
Our focus is on translational research, and we have an integrated team of laboratory researchers and clinician scientists who work together in partnership to discover new treatments which can be progressed from the lab bench to the beds of children on wards in our hospitals as quickly as possible. These new treatments are specifically targeting childhood cancers, so we can develop safer and more effective drugs and drug combinations that will minimise side-effects and ultimately give children with cancer the best chance of a cure with the highest possible quality of life.