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$38.4M NHMRC program grants extend cancer and blood cell research

Institute research into how cancer develops and blood cell production and function will today be awarded $38.4 million under the National Health and Medical Research Council's (NHMRC) program grants scheme.

The nine Australian medical research programs that have been successful in securing $107 million in program grant funding will be announced at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute by the Federal Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, the Honourable Mark Butler, at 10.15am on Tuesday 8 March.

Cancer researchers at the institute will receive $21.3 million to further research on the genetic changes that provoke cancer and to develop new approaches to its diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Ten scientists from five institute divisions will lead the research, with collaborators from the Burnet Institute and The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Professor Jerry Adams, joint head of the institute's Molecular Genetics of Cancer division and one of the program's chief investigators, said the prospects seemed bright that the program would yield findings of great biological importance and lead to significant improvements in cancer treatment.

"We are now focused upon understanding two hallmarks of cancers: how they evade the body's normal program of cell death and how, like normal stem cells, they can multiply indefinitely," he said.

Professor Adams stressed that evasion of programmed cell death, also called apoptosis, is both a crucial step in tumour development and a major barrier to successful long-term treatment. "We discovered that cell death is often blocked in cancer cells, so we are now attempting to develop drugs that flip the natural 'cell death switch' back on," he said.

Understanding the stem-cell-like behaviour of cancers is also highly relevant to therapy, he said. "Certain cancers may be driven by 'rogue' stem cells that can escape current treatments and cause a relapse. If so, eradication of these rare cells within the bulk tumour will require development of novel therapies that target them."

The institute will also be leading a $17.1 million program to further studies of the molecular processes that regulate blood cell production and function. Scientists from the Cancer and Haematology, Molecular Medicine and Inflammation divisions will be collaborating on the project, led by Professor Nic Nicola, head of the institute's Cancer and Haematology division.

"The blood-forming system performs an intricately controlled balance of cell proliferation, maturation and functional activity that is essential for oxygen transport throughout the body, blood clotting, and effective immune responses," Professor Nicola said.

"Defining the genes and molecules that orchestrate blood cell production and function is crucial, not only for understanding the role of blood in health, but for establishing the basis of blood cell disorders and for devising new clinical strategies for fighting these lethal diseases, including leukaemia and autoimmune and inflammatory disorders."

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said the NHMRC's program grants scheme provided vital support for Australian researchers to tackle complex but important research questions that might take many years to unravel.

"The program grants scheme is recognition that if Australian scientists are to continue to make discoveries that benefit human health they require sustained and significant support that brings together large research teams from diverse areas of medical research."


Contact: Liz Williams
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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