‘Game-Changing’ Research Grant

April 15th, 2013

The National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) today awarded its inaugural Translational Grant of $1.25 million to a team of Melbourne-based scientists to transfer their laboratory findings about a new class of anti-cancer drugs to the clinic to help breast cancer patients.

NBCF’s Translational Grant Program is specifically designed to bridge the ‘valley of death’, the funding limbo discoveries often fall into when they are ready to leave the lab and progress into humans. Professor Geoff Lindeman, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) and Royal Melbourne Hospital, and collaborators plan to further their research into a new class of drugs called BH3 mimetics, which specifically target proteins inside cancer cells that help the tumour survive and resist treatment.

While anti-hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, have significantly improved survival for patients with hormone-positive breast cancer, many women who initially respond well to these drugs develop drug resistance over time. This can lead to cancer recurrence, with limited therapy options, and remains a major obstacle to the effective treatment of breast cancer.

Proteins from the Bcl-2 family are found in about 75 per cent of breast cancers, and most oestrogen-positive breast cancers have high levels of Bcl-2. The protein is the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of breast cancer –protecting it from the toxic effects of anti-cancer drugs, and helping to drive the development of drug resistance.

In some of their earlier work, Professor Lindeman, Professor Jane Visvader and colleagues at WEHI showed that BH3-mimetics can effectively neutralise Bcl-2 in breast tumours so that chemotherapy is able to kill cancer cells more effectively. Using the NBCF grant, Professor Lindeman and colleagues will build on their earlier work and investigate how different BH3 mimetics work on their own and in combination with chemotherapy and anti-hormone therapy to treat breast cancer.

“We hope this approach can be applied to some types of breast cancer to make them more sensitive to either chemotherapy or hormone therapy,” Professor Lindeman says.

“This study is an important step in developing a promising new class of drugs for breast cancer that is more effective and minimises the development of drug resistance, which will improve overall survival for breast cancer patients.” Professor Lindeman, who is thrilled to receive the NBCF translational grant, described it as a “game changer” in terms of fulfilling the potential of the research study into the new cancer drugs.

One of the team members, Dr Jayesh Desai, is a Medical Oncologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital with a particular expertise in developing new drugs in cancer and will be helping with translating these findings into the first phase of trials. “It is an area that we are very excited about and we think has great promise for breast cancer patients in the intermediate to long term. The funding will provide us with the capacity and capabilities to take this work directly into the clinic in the most effective and efficient way.”

Dr Alison Butt, NBCF Director of Research Investment, said NBCF was committed to funding the most impactful breast cancer research to help achieve its goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.

“This exciting research has enormous potential to take findings out of the lab and into the clinic, where they will make a real difference to women living with a diagnosis of breast cancer,” Dr Butt said.