Researchers awarded NHMRC grants

La Trobe University researchers have been awarded $4.14 million in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council funding announced today.

Two La Trobe researchers – a specialist in cell biology and an alcohol policy and public health expert - have been recognised as emerging leaders in their field by being awarded NHMRC Career Development Fellowships (CDF).

In addition, five La Trobe scientists have been awarded a total of $$3.3m under the Project Grant scheme for a range of cancer-related research.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Keith Nugent said the strong results were a testament to the depth of research talent at La Trobe University.

“Research staff are focusing on some of the big challenges facing our community, better understanding disease at a molecular, cellular, individual and population level, and working with industry leaders to apply that knowledge and help make a difference,” he said.

NHMRC Career Development Fellowships

Dr Ivan Poon from the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Sciences was awarded $425,048 to better understand the role of dying cells in our body’s immune response to influenza A infection.

During cell death, cells disassemble in to smaller fragments, a process that could facilitate their removal, facilitate the spread of infection through the body as well as mediate communication with other healthy ‘defender’ cells.

Dr Michael Livingston from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, also received $425,048 for his work to better understand the reasons behind alcohol consumption and related-harm changes at a population level.

This fellowship will also directly assess the impact of changes to alcohol policies in Australia and the development of policy simulation models, to provide critical evidence and ensure well-informed policy decisions can be made to reduce alcohol-related harm.

NHMRC Project Grants

Dr Doug Fairlie (La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine and La Trobe School of Molecular Sciences) and Dr Erinna Lee (La Trobe School of Molecular Sciences) and their collaborators have been awarded $754,685 to work on a project entitled “Dual targeting of Myc and apoptosis pathways for improved Blood cancer treatment outcomes”.

Cancer cells frequently possess defects in genes called MYC and BCL-2 that control their growth and survival. Dr Fairlie and Dr Lee’s preliminary studies have shown that combining novel reagents that specifically target MYC plus BCL-2 leads to enhanced lymphoma cell killing.

In this study, the team will further develop these reagents and evaluate their ability to treat blood cancer. It is hoped that the approach will provide new avenues for treating cancer patients that respond poorly to current treatments.

Dr Frederic Masson (La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine) has been awarded a New Investigator Project Grant to the sum of $696,383 for his project “Understanding the role of B cells in gastric cancer for the design of new therapeutic strategies”.

Gastric cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death worldwide. Dr Masson and his team have previously established a clinically relevant mouse model of gastric cancer, in which their preliminary results indicate a strong link between B cell infiltration of tumours and gastric cancer progression. This project aims to elucidate the role of B cells in gastric cancer and determine whether B-cell targeted therapy alone or in combination with chemotherapy can be beneficial against this malignancy.

Prof John Mariadason (La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine) has been awarded $670,784 to lead a multi-disciplinary team to study “The FGFR family as drivers and biomarkers of regorafenib response in gastric cancer”.

The drug regorafenib has recently emerged as a potential new treatment for patients with gastric (stomach) cancer. The research team has discovered that gastric cancer cell lines which express high levels of members of the FGFR family are highly sensitive to this drug. This project will define the potential of targeting the FGFR family in gastric cancer, the value of FGFR family members as markers of regorafenib response, and develop strategies for enhancing regorafenib activity in this difficult to treat disease.

Dr Belinda Parker (La Trobe School of Molecular Sciences) brings together an experienced, multi-disciplinary team that aims to translate strong basic breast cancer research into the clinic. Dr Parker has been awarded $474,840 for her study “Characterising the tumour suppressive function of myoepithelial cell stefin A in ductal carcinoma in situ”.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a pre-invasive stage of breast cancer, where tumour cells remain restrained by myoepithelial cells that surround breast ducts. Predicting which cases of DCIS will later develop invasive cancer is difficult, meaning that the majority of patients have treatment. Dr Parker’s group identified the protease inhibitor Stefin A as a myoepithelial cell protein that blocks cancer invasion and the team aims to test the function of this protein in DCIS and its potential as a prognostic marker of the condition.

Dr Petranel Ferrao (La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine)will be “Targeting the JNK-JUN pathway to overcome therapy resistance in melanoma”. Her $694,728 Project Grant brings together a team of chief investigators that include academic and commercial company scientists with current knowledge, skills and expertise in melanoma research.

Melanoma patients can display remarkable responses to targeted and immunotherapies. However, most patients progress rapidly on targeted therapies and only a small proportion respond to immunotherapies. Dr Ferrao’s team has found that combination treatment with JNK inhibitors can overcome therapy resistance. In this project, they will determine the most effective JNK inhibitors available, and the optimal dosing and scheduling of combination treatment for evaluation in patients to improve responses, outcomes and survival.