Jerry Zhou

Cancer cell ‘fingerprints’ may spell the end to one-size-fits-all therapy as patients are given information to personalise their treatment, says a Sydney scientist.

Jerry Zhou, a PhD candidate, and a team at the Cancer Proteomics Laboratory, University of Sydney, took molecular fingerprints of cancer cells, which allowed them to predict a cancer’s progress and match patients with the best possible therapy.

“Traditionally, all cancers have been labelled as a mindless mass of growing cells and the therapies reflect this one-size-fits-all approach,” says Jerry.

“We are now just beginning to understand their complexity. Cancers are consistently changing and evolving, which means for therapies to work, we need to be one step ahead of the cancer,” he says.

The evolution of cancers is assisted by changes in proteins on their surface. These proteins do the cancer’s dirty work by allowing the cancer to elude the body’s own defences or absorb more nutrients for rapid growth.

To predict what cancers are going to do next, Jerry used an Australian patented cell-capture biochip to take protein fingerprints from over 100 cancer patients around NSW. These cancer fingerprints revealed the aggressiveness of the cancer and helped to predict a patient’s survival.

“By knowing how a cancer will act, we can match the correct therapy with the right patient to get the best results. Protein fingerprinting is providing us with the information needed to personalise cancer therapy,” Jerry says.

NSW State Finalist: Jerry Zhou, The University of Sydney

Madleen Busse

At a time when antibiotic resistance is high, a promising new class of antibiotics has been developed to fight the bacteria that causes gastrointestinal ulcers and cancers.

Madleen Busse and a team of Monash University researchers have designed novel bismuth compounds that are more powerful than the drugs used to treat Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), raising the possibility of faster and safer treatment for patients.

“We are one step closer to having a novel powerful antibiotic against H. pylori,” says Madleen Busse, who conducted the research as part of her PhD at Monash University.

“These compounds are 250 times more effective against H. pylori compared to the commercially available bismuth drugs,” she says.

Madleen, together with one of her supervisor’s collaborators, Professor Richard Ferrero of the Monash Institute of Medical Research, found that bismuth sulfonate compounds killed H pylori in vitro.  Her Monash University supervisor, Professor Phil Andrews, and his research team are now looking to conduct phase pre-clinical trials.

“All the research teams are very excited to see the research proceeding onto the next level to test the most promising antibiotics developed in the laboratory,” Madleen says.

H pylori has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics over the past 15 years, with patients having to undertake multiple therapies and higher doses of medication.  These triple and quadruple therapies often involve colloidal bismuth subcitrate.

Victoria State Finalist: Madleen Busse, Monash University

Cell death genes essential for cancer therapy identified.

New research has uncovered why certain cancers don’t respond to conventional chemotherapy, highlighting the need to match treatments to cancers better. [click to continue…]

A compound produced by a pregnant lizard may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans, according to zoologist Bridget Murphy from the University of Sydney, who discovered the protein, which is pivotal to the development of the lizard placenta.

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Radiation beams directed at the lung cancer. Credit: Sarah Everitt, Peter MacCallum Cancer CentreA team of Victorian researchers have discovered how to track if lung tumours respond during a course of treatment. Trials with five patients revealed that some tumours responded quickly to treatment while others continued to grow. A larger trial is now underway with twenty patients.

The new technique could transform lung cancer treatment. [click to continue…]

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a way to deliver drugs which can specifically shut down cancer-causing genes in tumour cells while sparing normal healthy tissues.

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

They are currently looking at cervical cancer. While cervical cancer vaccines – co-developed by Professor Ian Frazer at UQ – are reducing the chances of infection with the virus that causes the cancer, many thousands of women worldwide are likely to contract cervical cancer in the next few decades.

Fresh Scientist Ms Sherry Wu hopes the new technique, which involves the use of coatings rich in fats, will hasten the application of RNA interference or gene-silencing, a technology which can inactivate individual genes. Using this technology, she and her colleagues observed a 70% reduction in tumour size in a cervical cancer mouse model. [click to continue…]

It may be possible to halt cancer in its tracks by blocking a gene critical to building tumour supply lines, according to new research carried out at the University of Queensland.

Most tumours need a blood supply to grow.

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found that when new blood vessels form – in developing embryos and in tumours – a gene, known as Sox18, switches on for just 48 hours.

“In adult mice, we have found that interfering with this gene reduces tumour growth by up to 80 percent,” says postdoctoral scientist Dr Neville Young. “A surprisingly large number of people carry microscopic tumours inside their bodies but these cells never develop into disease.

“One of the reasons these cancerous cells do not rage out of control is that they never establish a blood supply to feed them. Those unlucky enough to develop malignant tumours often do so when cancerous cells co-opt the body’s own blood supply.”

Sox18 has an important role to play in helping specialised cells travel to the right position and then form the tubes needed for blood flow.

Dr Young says that targeting blood vessels was not a new concept in the fight against cancer, but that one of the big problems was the side effects of current treatments.

“The novel thing about targeting Sox18 is that it is only turned on in new blood vessels feeding the growing tumour,” he says. “It does not seem to affect any other blood vessels in the body. By attacking only Sox18 we might be able to stop these new vessels forming while leaving the rest of the blood supply alone.”

The next step is to test whether researchers can manufacture a drug for humans that can mimic the observed effects in mice. They also need to design a delivery system to get the drug to the growing blood vessel cells to switch Sox18 off.

The early stages of this research are already underway with preliminary results expected within two years. This is dependent on ongoing funding for this research.

Neville is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

Fats trigger immune defence

14 August 2007

in 2007

Synchrotron light delivers Nature paper for young scientist

Natalie Borg and colleagues from Monash and Melbourne universities have shown for the first time how the body’s immune defence system can be triggered by fats, sugars and other biological compounds, not just by proteins. The research, published recently in Nature, opens the way to potential new treatments for whole areas of disease such as infections, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile-onset diabetes and some types of cancer.

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Fish make omega-3 from noxious weed

Australian scientists have found that fish fed oil extracted from one of Australia’s most damaging noxious weeds, Patterson’s curse, produce health-giving omega-3 oils for human consumption. [click to continue…]

A new system for directing radiation to target cells has been developed in Melbourne. The new targeting system has the potential to specifically destroy cancer cells with minimal damage to healthy tissues.

The new targeting concept, for which an international patent is pending, uses a special class of radioactive atoms for which the radiation damage is confined to the molecules immediately adjacent to the radioactive atom.

The cell-killing effect is maximised by directing the radiation to the genetic material (DNA) of the target cell, with little effect on neighbouring cells.

“We expect that our targeting system will be particularly useful for small clusters of cancer cells, such as those that spread throughout the body when a cancer becomes more advanced,” says Dr Tom Karagiannis, research officer with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre where the system was devised.

Conventional cancer therapies such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have resulted in a steady decline in cancer mortality rates over the years.  Only chemotherapy has the potential to be effective when the cancer has spread throughout the body, but often it is not effective.

Latest figures from the World Health Organization show that about 50 percent of cancer patients still die in developed countries and about 80 percent die in developing countries.

A unique feature of the cancer targeting system is the highly focussed damage caused by the radioactive isotopes used – most of the radiation damage is within a distance of only a few millionths of a millimetre.  This means they can kill cancer cells without causing significant damage to normal cells.

The new technology combines knowledge from a wide range of scientific disciplines, including radiation biology, chemistry and immunology, Dr Karagiannis says.  The key ingredient is a complex composite drug, made by attaching the radioactive atom to a DNA-binding molecule, which in turn is linked to a cancer-targeting protein such as an antibody.

“Our radiolabelled DNA-binding drug alone provided a very efficient ‘molecular bomb’ for destroying cells,” says Dr Karagiannis. “But it could not discriminate between cancer cells and healthy cells.”

To make a ‘smarter’ drug, researchers took advantage of the fact that many cancer cells express high levels of certain proteins on their cell surface. Antibodies that bind specifically to these surface proteins were used as vehicles to target the lethal damage to cancer cells.

“Our strategy builds on the growing interest in antibodies as cancer therapeutics,” says Associate Professor Roger Martin, Tom’s supervisor who has been working on the project concept for the past three decades.

“There are a currently only a handful of such anticancer-antibodies that have been approved for therapy and many others that are in clinical trials.”

Proof-of-principle studies with the new targeting system have yielded very promising results with cell cultures, but a commercial partner is required for further development.

Tom is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

GeneBalls: barcoding DNA

31 August 2004

in 2004

Millions of genetic tests using just one drop of blood

Queensland PhD student Angus Johnston has invented a unique technology with the potential to test for hundreds of diseases, cancers and genes in one, cheap, test. He hopes that within five years the technology will be available in a desktop unit for less than $30,000.

“This is a unique, patented technology that has the potential to revolutionise genetic testing,” said Angus Johnston, PhD student and co-inventor of the technology.

“A simple machine could be installed in a doctor’s surgery which would give almost instantaneous feedback on which diseases the patient is susceptible.”

GeneBalls would not only help diagnosing cancer and other diseases, but also give an early warning for diseases like heart disease. With this early warning the patient can make lifestyle changes before any symptoms occur.

Geneballs can currently look at 12 genes in one test, but in the next 12 months we plan to increase this number to tens or hundreds of thousands. The existing technology, is too expensive and inaccurate for clinical applications.

It’s been an exciting journey for the student researcher. “I’ve had the opportunity to do a PhD that’s led to direct commercial outcomes,” says Angus. “It’s exciting to do the research and see it turn into two international patents and a shareholding in a company which is commercialising the technology.”

GeneBalls are tiny particles one tenth the diameter of a human hair and work like a barcode on items in a supermarket.  Each tiny bead contains a mixture of fluorescent dyes and is coated with DNA.  If a patient has DNA the same as DNA on one of the GeneBalls, their DNA will stuck to the GeneBall

Angus is one of 15 Fresh Scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the State Library of Victoria.

For photos go to


Click on the images for a larger view in a new window

Electron microscope images of GeneBalls 

Are cancer cells confused?

30 August 2004

in 2004

Scientists have recently discovered that the gene EDD is implicated in the development of breast and ovarian cancer. And like the horse, this gene is into talking.

“Cancer arises from defects in cell growth and division. We are now beginning to realise that defective cellular communication can also lead to cancer,” says Professor Rob Sutherland, Director of the Cancer Research Program at Garvan Institute.

Cells “talk” to each other in the developing embryo to coordinate themselves into higher structures like organs and blood vessels. Vigilant communication and coordination between cells is essential throughout life to maintain these structures.

Part of EDD’s job is to tell cells where to go. Garvan scientists have shown that mice without EDD have the cells to make blood vessels but they are unable to coordinate their development. Without EDD cells become confused.

Cancer is often caused by cells producing too many copies of key cancer genes. Work at Garvan has demonstrated that excess copies of the EDD gene are present in 73% of one aggressive type of ovarian cancer and that excessive amounts of the EDD protein are found in 63% of breast cancers and 39% of ovarian cancers. Garvan research aims to define whether too much EDD is crucial to the development of these cancers.

“We now anticipate that this research will have practical applications,” says Garvan Scientist Jennifer Clancy.

Jennifer is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the media as part of the national Fresh Science competition.

“We are currently looking at whether excess levels of EDD can help us predict the behaviour of a cancer. This could assist doctors in deciding how best to treat future cancer patients.”

Key questions of how altered levels of EDD lead to cellular confusion, and whether this leads to cancer, are current areas of research at Garvan.

“We expect that future work will yield more clues to the function of this fascinating gene and the role of communication in the development of cancer,” says Jennifer Clancy, “More importantly, one day this research may provide better treatment options to future cancer patients.”

When the EDD gene is mutated in fruit flies, it causes fly ‘cancer’    Cells without the EDD gene cannot coordinate the formation of blood vessels. 
Cells without EDD do not communicate well with adjacent cells    The amount of EDD protein produced in breast and ovarian cancer tissue 

Some cases of breast cancer may be caused by a virus according to new research by scientists at the University of New South Wales and Prince of Wales Hospital. [click to continue…]

In break-through research, researchers have identified genes in mice that appear to be important in the spread of breast cancer to bones.

Australian women have a one in eleven life-time risk of developing breast cancer. For many women, early diagnosis and treatment provides a complete cure. However, if the tumour spreads, the disease is hard to control and the treatment options are limited. [click to continue…]

Queensland researchers have discovered new genes that are important in producing the ‘slime’ that protects the human colon from cancer-causing agents.

Currently about one in 23 Australians are likely to develop colorectal cancer, a disease that attacks the lining of the colon and rectum at the end of the human digestive system. [click to continue…]

A new generation of vaccines is closer, thanks to research work by a young Melbourne scientist on DNA vaccines. [click to continue…]