A/Prof Sean Grimmond with a sequencer
A/Prof Sean Grimmond with a sequencer

26 March 2009

Scientists at The University of Queensland (UQ) will use a record research grant to give new hope to patients with two of Australia's most fatal cancers.

The Australian Government has pledged $27.5 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to fund a UQ cancer genome sequencing program to study pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

The $27.5 million, announced by Health Minister Nicola Roxon, is the largest ever grant from the NHMRC. UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor David Siddle said it gave the Australian people a crucial stake in the research program, based at UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).

"The new program will aim to revolutionise our understanding of pancreatic and ovarian cancers and provide new avenues for the treatment of these diseases," Professor Siddle said.

"The primary target will be pancreatic cancer, which is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer in the developed world and takes the life of the average patient within six months of diagnosis.

"Ovarian cancer, although less common, has no screening test and is often not discovered until it has spread beyond the ovary, making treatment difficult. It is the sixth most common cause of cancer death in Australian women.

"By developing detailed descriptions (known as sequences) of tumour genes, the researchers will provide information for other scientists who are seeking to tailor-make drugs that target specific tumours, instead of a range of cancers.

"The government funding is vital to complete a five-year package valued at more than $40 million. Essential contributions are also coming from Applied Biosystems – a division of Life Technologies Corporation that is providing best-in-class technologies – (SGI) Silicon Graphics, the Cancer Council NSW and UQ itself."

The program will be directed by Associate Professor Sean Grimmond, who is heading Australia's contribution to the International Cancer Genome Consortium. The international consortium will involve teams from around the world sequencing 50 tumour types from 25,000 patients.

"It will be a massive and co-ordinated effort to gather and share information about the genetics of tumours, and will move us closer to being able to personalise a cancer patient's treatment," IMB director Professor Brandon Wainwright said.

"It has been known for some time that tumours form as a result of accumulated genetic damage. The program will identify the entire scope of this damage in 500 pancreatic and ovarian tumours, and compare them with normal tissue.

"This will allow us to discover how these tumours originate and develop, giving us targets for treatment.

"Profiling tumours will also allow for more accurate prognoses, meaning doctors can devise the most effective strategies for individual patients."

Key partners of the IMB research program are the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Australian Genome Research Facility.

The centre will be run in collaboration with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Canada and the US Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, with investigators from the University of California San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University.

Media: Professor Sean Grimmond (07 3346 2057), Bronwyn Adams (07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247) or Fiona Kennedy (07 3365 1384 or 0413 380 012).

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