Breakthrough pancreatic cancer research

Oliva Newton-John Cancer Research Institute paves the way for improving treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Researchers from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJ Cancer Research Institute) / the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, have discovered a novel drug target to potentially improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and deadliest cancers with very low survival rates – only 11 per cent of patients remaining alive five years after their initial diagnosis (AIHW).

Immunotherapy is one of the most powerful treatments for cancer. It involves boosting the ability of immune cells to recognize and remove cancer cells. However, currently pancreatic cancer is almost completely unresponsive.

The results of this new study, published in the prestigious journal, Cell Reports, was led by researchers at the ONJ Cancer Research Institute/ La Trobe University. The lead author of the study, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Ashleigh Poh (pictured), explained the importance of these new findings.

“We have identified a novel drug target that can improve the response of pancreatic tumors to immunotherapy. This is important because most pancreatic cancer patients do not respond to existing anti-cancer drugs, and the survival rate of pancreatic cancer has not improved over the past few decades. We hope to eventually translate these findings into the clinic and improve survival outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients.”

The study was led by Professor Matthias Ernst, Director of the ONJ Cancer Research Institute and Head of La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine, and included international collaborators from the University of San Francisco.

It shows that inhibition of hematopoietic cell kinase (HCK), a protein found in a type of immune cell, improves the response of pancreatic cancer to immunotherapy in preclinical models. It also reduced the spread of cancer cells to other areas of the body – a processes known as metastasis.

Professor Matthias Ernst warned that it is likely to take several years before the current discovery could reach clinical applications, but that the ONJ Cancer Research Institute is uniquely placed to accelerate these findings towards future clinical trials.

“Because we work in the same building as our oncologist colleagues at Austin Health, our discoveries in the laboratory can be quickly translated into patient trials. What this also means is that observations from the clinic can be investigated by our research team – a continual cycle of learning and improvement between scientific research and patient care.”

This research study made possible with thanks to the generous funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), PanKind, Pancare Foundation and Tour de Cure.

About Olivia-Newton John Cancer Research Institute

The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJ Cancer Research Institute) is a leader in the development of innovative and breakthrough cancer treatments.

Based at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne, the ONJ Cancer Research Institute’s world-class laboratories are located just metres from hospital beds, allowing researchers and clinicians to work closely together and translate scientific discoveries into clinical trials to improve treatment options for patients.

Our researchers bring observations from the clinic back to the laboratory bench to create a continual cycle of learning and improvement between scientific research and clinical applications.

Our research is primarily focused on investigating and developing treatments for cancers of gastrointestinal tract, brain, breast, lung, skin and rare cancers. We also undertake research in understudied rare cancers and proactively look for opportunities to extend our efforts to other cancers and diseases. For more information visit

The Olivia-Newton John Cancer Research Institute is part of the La Trobe University, as the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine.

Dr Ashleigh Poh is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in ONJCRI’s Cancer and Inflammation Laboratory.

She is interested in developing novel drugs to improve the response of tumours to chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Prof Matthias Ernst, Director of ONJCRI, is Head of the Cancer Environment and Inflammation Program and Head of La Trobe University’s School of Cancer Medicine.

His laboratory team explores novel strategies to target mechanisms by which tumour cells and normal cells communicate and develop new treatments for gastrointestinal cancers.

Media contact: Kate O’Connor - k.o’, 0436 189 629