Setting their sights on cancer relapse

Friday, 9 February 2018

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists, including the University of Adelaide and research institutes across Australia, Israel, the UK and the USA has been shortlisted to the final stages of Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge* – an ambitious series of £20m global grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research.

The project aims to demystify the phenomenon of ‘cell dormancy’ – where cancer cells not killed by initial treatment can ‘go to sleep’ for months or years, only to wake later and start to form a new cancer. The reawakening of dormant cells often happens without warning, making the returning cancers hard to predict and treat, often with devastating effect.

The researchers seek to accelerate understanding of cancer cell dormancy and to answer questions once thought impossible to solve: Why do cancer cells become dormant? And what causes them to wake up and form a new cancer? Their Grand Challenge project aims to create a map of the biological environment around dormant cancer cells in space and time, and to uncover the processes that control them – with the ultimate aim of stopping an individual’s cancer from returning.

Led by Professor Peter Croucher (Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney), the international team involves researchers at Garvan, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the University of Adelaide in Australia, as well as Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the Babraham Institute (UK), University of Oxford (UK), Yale University (USA) and Washington University (USA).

Professor of Experimental Haematology at the University of Adelaide, Andrew Zannettino and his research group are based in the newly formed Adelaide BioMed City Precinct, which encompasses the Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.

“This research, while ostensibly “discovery” in nature, will allow the team to identify new targets to which drugs can be developed that specifically eradicate dormant cancer cells. In addition, we will develop biomarkers - measurable indicators of the presence of a cancer - which will help in the detection of dormant cancer cells and identify cancer patients who are at risk of relapse,” he says.

“Through our connections with the global clinical research community and the pharmaceutical industry, the team is well placed to accelerate drug development and approval.

“This research is likely to impact all cancer types where relapse is common and contributes to deaths after many years,” says Professor Zannettino.

The team will now be given the opportunity to draft their full research proposal with support from Cancer Research UK, and the winning proposals will be announced in late 2018.

The Grand Challenge award aims to revolutionise how we diagnose, prevent and treat cancer by providing international multi-disciplinary teams the freedom to try novel approaches, at scale, in the pursuit of life changing discoveries.

This is the second round of Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge award and last year four teams were awarded up to £20 million each**.

Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Round two of Grand Challenge is proving to be incredibly inspiring and the ambitious applications reflect the quality of global researchers this initiative has attracted to beat cancer sooner. We’re delighted with the teams we’ve shortlisted and look forward to hearing more about how they plan to tackle the toughest challenges in cancer research.”

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge advisory panel, said: “The challenges set for Grand Challenge have once again attracted some of the best researchers in the world. I’m looking forward to see how global collaboration could bring together diverse expertise, invigorate areas of research, and overcome barriers in ways that aren’t happening at this point in time.”

Professor Croucher said, “We're so excited by the prospect of support from the Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge. This is an unprecedented opportunity to crack the problem of why some cancer cells sleep, then wake.

“It was once thought that understanding cancer cell dormancy was an insurmountably difficult problem, because of the immense technological challenges in finding and studying sleeping cells. But recent research progress in this area has been remarkable – and our project harnesses world-leading technology and multidisciplinary expertise from across the globe so that we can advance our understanding at an unprecedented rate.

“Solving this challenge will revolutionise understanding of cancer and bring new meaning to a “cure” for cancer.”


Contact Details

Professor Andrew Zannettino
Professor of Experimental Haematology
Mobile: +61 (0) 401 102 950

Crispin Savage
Media and Communications Officer
University of Adelaide
Business: +61 (0)481 912 465