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Unshackling the Immune System

Unshackling the Immune System

Researcher name: A/Prof Peter Fecci
Institution: Duke University, U.S.
Grant name: More Data Grant
Grant amount: Up to $477K
Grant years: 2021-2023

Meet the Researcher

A/Prof Peter Fecci is a neurosurgeon, scholar and brain cancer researcher. He has trained at the Ivy League research University, Cornell University, and prestigious Duke University (U.S.). His research centres around brain tumour immunology, immunotherapy and T-cell dysfunction in glioblastoma. He was one of the first to identify T-cell dysfunction in brain cancer.

After decades of failure, scientists finally found effective ways of turning the immune system against cancers, with spectacular results – except for brain cancer. Immunotherapies have continued to fail in brain cancer and the team have discovered that the T-cells are stuck in the bone marrow of brain cancer patients. This project may unlock the reason why immunotherapy has failed in brain cancer and lead to immunotherapy treatments finally being effective.

 

If the team’s theory is correct, this work will finally allow for the development of effective immunotherapies for patients with brain cancer.

Development of Beta-arrestin 2 small molecule inhibitors for brain cancer therapy

Cancers of the intracranial (IC) compartment carry unique therapeutic challenges and offer grim outcomes, regardless of tissue type. These cancers include primary malignancies, such as universally lethal glioblastoma (GBM), as well as far more common brain metastases. Our group unveiled the ability of IC tumours to cause a dramatic plunge in the number of circulating T-cells, the main cells that help drive the body’s defences against cancer. Immunotherapy is a novel modality of cancer therapy that has gained momentum in recent years, which works by harnessing and ramping up the body’s own immune system, especially T-cells (the immune system’s effector arm) to fight cancer. However, without T-cells, there is nothing for immunotherapy to act upon. Our group tracked the missing T-cells in patients with IC cancers and discovered them ‘trapped’ in the bone marrow. We showed that this phenomenon is accompanied by loss of sphingosine 1-phosphate receptor 1 (S1P1) from the T-cell surface. S1P1 is a molecule which would normally act as an ‘exit visa’ allowing T-cells to exit from the bone marrow. Without surface S1P1, T-cells instead are locked in, unable to circulate out of the marrow. To solve this problem, our group demonstrated that mice lacking Beta-arrestin 2 (βARR2), an adaptor protein responsible for S1P1 internalisation, do not experience sequestration, and their T-cells are instead able to travel to the brain, and, with the help of immunotherapy, fight their cancers. Our studies in mouse models provided the proof of concept that blocking βARR2 and preventing loss of S1P1 could promote T-cells travelling to the brain to produce anti-tumour responses. However, we’ve now found that inhibiting βARR2 does far more to combat cancer, and we’re finding unprecedented responses against many types of cancer when we knock out βARR2. We think we’ve uncovered an entirely novel cancer therapeutic, and we’ve partnered with a Nobel Laureate who is an expert in this molecule to help develop a pharmacological strategy to block βARR2. We hope that our continued work will allow for the development of more effective immunotherapies for patients with brain cancer.

Starving Brain Cancer

Starving Brain Cancer

Researcher name: A/Prof Jeff Holst
Institution: UNSW Sydney, AUS
Grant name: More Data Grant
Grant amount: Up to $136K
Grant years: 2021-2022

Meet the Researcher

A/Prof Jeff Holst is a highly experienced cancer researcher who has turned his efforts to brain cancer. He completed his postdoctoral studies at the prestigious St Jude Children’s Research Hospital (U.S.) before returning to Australia to start his own cancer laboratory. His research has led to ground-breaking new techniques in cancer immunology and metabolism.

This research will build upon the work of our Cancer Genomics – The Next Level project as the data collected on the energy sources needed by brain cancer cells will be integrated and matched with the genetic data, creating the ultimate roadmap of what and how cancer cells grow, survive and ultimately how they can be destroyed.

 

It will enable us to understand how GBM tumours are metabolically programmed, providing the critical data for future studies in developing new therapies targeting these metabolic vulnerabilities.

Developing a metabolic roadmap to discover novel therapeutic avenues to starve glioblastoma

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most aggressive primary brain tumour with an overall survival prognosis of less than 15 months - a devastating diagnosis for both the patient and their family. Over many years, researchers have tried to map the genetics of the disease, in order to determine new ways to treat GBM based on genetic changes such as mutations. Despite this, there remains no effective treatments for GBM, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy the current options, suggesting we need to try an alternative avenue.

While genetic changes in the DNA have a profound effect on cancer cells, these effects are actually carried out by proteins which the DNA codes for. In turn these proteins, including nutrient transporters and enzymes, combine together to mediate the uptake and metabolism of nutrients in order to facilitate the rapid growth of the cancer cells. This is critical, as a cancer cell needs to essentially double all its DNA, RNA, proteins and fats in order to make two new cells during cell division. This cell division occurs rapidly in GBM, increasing the size of the tumour and ultimately tumour relapse post-treatment.

In this pilot study, we will undertake metabolic profiling of GBM patient samples taken at surgery, to understand how they use and distribute their essential nutrients. This will develop a metabolic roadmap which can be combined with genetic information being developed through the Cancer Genomics – The Next Level project. Ultimately, success in this project will enable us to understand how GBM tumours are metabolically programmed, providing the critical data for future studies developing new therapies targeting these metabolic vulnerabilities. These future studies would include using our patient-derived laboratory models to test currently available metabolic drugs, thereby determining whether they can successfully starve the GBM cells.

 

 

The Evolution of Childhood Brain Cancer

The Evolution of Childhood Brain Cancer

Researcher name: Dr Roel Verhaak
Institution: The Jackson Laboratory, U.S.
Grant name: More Data Grant
Grant amount: Up to $672K
Grant years: 2020-2021

Meet the Researcher

Dr Roel Verhaak is a world-class brain cancer researcher. He trained, in part, at the prestigious Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT Institutes in Cambridge (U.S.) and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston (U.S.). His research contributed to the definition of clinical categories of brain cancer that are now used by the World Health Organisation.

Experimental models have been extremely useful for learning about cancer and how we might treat it. For brain cancer, however, these models have failed to provide sufficient insight for a breakthrough. This project will use data to help understand what drives brain cancer from models of naturally occurring brain cancer that have never before been explored.

This work could be the beginning of a significant new frontier in brain cancer treatment for children. Striving to treat and cure dogs with cancer, learning what works best and importantly why it works, can inform our own therapy regimens. This provides an important opportunity to improve a child’s brain cancer outcome.

Targeting regions of converging synteny and loss of heterozygosity in paediatric and canine glioma

Brain cancers such as glioma occur in dogs at rates comparable to humans, with short-snouted breeds such as boxers being more susceptible than others. In helping to treat dogs diagnosed with brain cancer, the research team compared the molecular and cellular characteristics of glioma in dogs to their human counterparts and found extensive similarity in particular to aggressive glioma observed in children.

In this project, the team will leverage the similarities between glioma in dogs and in children to further sharpen the lens as to what is causing these cancers. They will mine large datasets on dog and children’s gliomas to precisely define the hundreds of molecular abnormalities found in both disease types. The team will perform a large screen and functionally eliminate each molecular abnormality one by one and evaluate the effects of this depletion on cancer-associated features such as cell growth in human and canine cell models of glioma. This advanced screen is enabled by the versatile and cutting-edge imaging platform and computational expertise at the Jackson Laboratory.

The team expects to see convergence of the most impactful molecular abnormalities on brain cancer’s evolutionary mechanisms, which will implicate that these mechanisms are candidates for the development of new treatments.

Harnessing the Power from Within to Tackle DIPG/DMG

Harnessing the Power from Within to Tackle DIPG/DMG

Researcher name: Dr Matt Dun
Institution: University of Newcastle, AUS
Grant name: Alegra’s Army Grant
Grant amount: Up to $326K
Grant years: 2020-2023

Meet the Researcher

Dr Matt Dun is an exceptional cancer researcher. He has enjoyed continuous Fellowship funding from the Cancer Institute NSW, and the National Health and Medical Research Council since the completion of his PhD (2012); collecting 15 national and international research awards. He added childhood brain cancer research to his program after the devastating diagnosis of his own 2-year-old daughter Josephine, with diffuse midline glioma (DMG), formally known as DIPG.

This project looks to utilise the patient’s own immune system; to harness the power from within and identify signposts on DMG cancer cells that can be used as beacons for the immune system to recognise and subsequently attack the cancer.

The current survival of a child diagnosed with DMG is only 9 months. Through the team’s research efforts, they were able to extend survival for Josie to 21 months, which is an enormous feat despite her tragic passing. The project is now looking at how this was possible and trying to apply these learnings to other children with DMG.

The goal of this project is to increase survival with better immune-based therapies for the treatment of DMG. This was achieved in one case of DMG and the project looks to expand this to other children with DMG.   

Harnessing the power from within: Neoantigen immunopeptidomics for the development of immunotherapies for the treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG)

Occurring in the brain stem, diffuse midline glioma (DMG) is  responsible for half of all brain cancer deaths in children. The brain stem controls vital functions such as breathing and heart rate, plus the nerves and muscles required for sight, hearing, movement, swallowing and speech. Primarily affecting children and young adolescents (median age 7 years), the average survival is just 9 months post diagnosis. Radiotherapy (offered at diagnosis) provides transient benefits and is considered palliative. Tumour location precludes resection and chemotherapy approaches (historical and current) have not increased survival.

Progress in treating DMG faces two major barriers: the lack of DMG-specific biological knowledge, and how to circumvent the brain’s protective mechanism, the blood brain barrier (BBB). The BBB acts as a shield to stop toxins moving from the blood stream into the brain, including chemotherapies and other pharmacological treatments.

Recently, recurring gene mutations that drive DMG disease initiation and progression have been identified. The unique combinations of mutations identified suggest the tumour is able to continue to grow and survive despite specific, mutation-matched, pharmacological targeting. Therefore, to improve outcomes for children with DMG, we look to utilise the patient’s own immune system. To harness the power from within in the fight against DMG. We will identify molecules presented to the patient’s immune system as foreign (i.e. tumour-specific gene products) that can be used in the development of novel immunological therapies.

Biobanking 3.0!

Biobanking 3.0!

Researcher name: Charlie Teo Foundation
Institution: Charlie Teo Foundation, AUS
Grant name: More Data Grant
Grant amount: $340K
Grant years: 2019 →

Dr Charlie Teo has dedicated his time to collecting samples for over 10 years making this resource one of the largest and most varied to study brain cancer. Now in an Australian-first, the Charlie Teo Foundation Brain Tumour Bank will extract DNA from samples and analyse and map their genetic code making this data available for researchers to use. That data essentially creates a virtual copy of the sample, meaning a single sample can now be used in multiple brain cancer studies at the same time!

Charlie Teo Foundation Brain Tumour Bank will take precision medicine – the knowledge of an individual’s genetic code – to the next level. This will form the foundation for researchers to begin to understand how an individuals’ genetic code interacts and behaves with various factors that results in their brain cancer. Understanding this may lead to targeted treatments that will make a significant difference to an individual beating brain cancer.

Charlie Teo Foundation Brain Tumour Bank

Charlie Teo Foundation Brain Tumour Bank is a safe house for samples of human tissue, live cells, DNA and blood to be used for brain cancer research. It will help researchers understand what is unique and different about each individual’s brain cancer and contribute to expanding knowledge on diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.

The Brain Tumour Bank is unique because not only will it collect tissue and blood samples, as routinely collected by Australian brain biobanks, but will determine the precise sequence of every nitrogenous base pair that makes up the genetic code of the patients who have donated their samples. This provides a highly comprehensive, cost-effective, time-saving and invaluable resource for researchers to use to help advance our research of brain cancer.

Charlie Teo Foundation Brain Tumour Bank will also be unique in establishing a cell line repository of real-world brain tumours, which could be utilised in future to learn more about the behaviours of these tumours. Successful development of these cell lines will provide valuable and accurate models that will enable more refined analysis of the mechanisms that regulate individual patient response to treatment and allow the development of models for precision medicine.