Medical Research: The quest eternal

In as little as five years some of the worst cancers won’t be fatal conditions. One man working towards making this a reality is Professor Sean Grimmond, an international genomics expert who joined the University of Melbourne in 2016 as the Bertalli Chair in Cancer Medicine, thanks to a generous donation from Neville and Diana Bertalli.

Professor Sean Grimmond, Bertalli Chair in Cancer Medicine
Professor Sean Grimmond, Bertalli Chair in Cancer Medicine

Professor Grimmond is the inaugural Director of the University of Melbourne Centre for Cancer Research (UMCCR). He champions the University’s cancer research strategy and is driving unprecedented collaboration between scientists and clinicians across the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre – the largest concentration of cancer researchers in Australia.

Recruiting Professor Grimmond was a major coup for the University and is enabling the rapid acceleration of this strategic research priority. The Bertallis’ investment is playing an integral role in combatting a global health issue.

Despite significant advances in the treatment and management of common cancers such as breast and skin, there has been little progress in the past 50 years for some of the rarer and more challenging cancers. With increasing rates of obesity among the population, the prevalence of some of these cancers is also on the rise.

But, Professor Grimmond says, scientists are now at a tipping point where genomic research and technology will radically alter this course.

“Until now, we’ve largely been reliant on the microscope to understand the nature of diseases. We have determined the nature of cancer by identifying where it is growing and what the cells look like, but it has told us little about the root cause of the disease.

Genomics is changing that by allowing us to analyse cancer at the DNA level, and the massive shift in computer technology is making it possible. It is becoming the microscope of the 21st century.

Other philanthropists are taking notice and, in 2017, the UMCCR under Professor Grimmond’s leadership was the recipient of multi-million-dollar investments from both the PMF Foundation and the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Professor Grimmond says these gifts will “enable unprecedented cancer discovery, accelerate translation of genomics into the clinic and ultimately improve outcomes for cancer sufferers”.

Professor Grimmond and his team are now using genome discovery and precision oncology to unlock the secrets of some of the most challenging cancers, including upper gastrointestinal cancers, which can affect the oesophagus, stomach, gall bladder, liver, small intestine and pancreas.

While the PMF Foundation has made an important five-year commitment to support Professor Grimmond’s precision oncology program more broadly, the Li Ka Shing Foundation hopes its gift will assist in making advances specifically in upper gastrointestinal cancer research.

The foundation’s $US3 million ($A3.97 million) donation will enable the genomes of 250 patients with upper gastrointestinal cancers to be sequenced over three years. The study will collect genetic information from these patients that will contribute to a global knowledge base, enabling cancer specialists to better understand the cancers and determine more effective personalised therapies to treat them.

The project is led by Professor Grimmond and Professor Alex Boussioutas, Deputy Director of Gastroenterology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. By 2021, they plan to be using pioneering methods to grow human cancer tissue as ‘organoids’ so they can test their responsiveness to drugs before administering them to patients. It is also possible that decoding patients’ tumours will reveal matches to existing drugs that currently treat other cancers.

According to Professor Boussioutas, the ultimate goal is to one day prevent cancers altogether with the use of genomics.

“As a clinician, prevention is the Holy Grail we are working towards,” he says.

While there will still be ongoing challenges for Professors Grimmond and Boussioutas, as patients and their cancers become resistant to therapies, they remain committed and optimistic about the future of innovative cancer care.

“Cancer will increasingly become a chronic disease that we will be able to keep at bay,” says Professor Boussioutas. “It is already starting to happen.”

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