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Setting their sights on cancer relapse

Monday, 12 February 2018

Source: University of Adelaide

Australian-led team shortlisted for Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge Award

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists, including the University of Adelaide and research institutes across Australia, Israel, the UK and the USA has been shortlisted to the final stages of Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge* – an ambitious series of £20m global grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research.

The project aims to demystify the phenomenon of ‘cell dormancy’ – where cancer cells not killed by initial treatment can ‘go to sleep’ for months or years, only to wake later and start to form a new cancer. The reawakening of dormant cells often happens without warning, making the returning cancers hard to predict and treat, often with devastating effect.

The researchers seek to accelerate understanding of cancer cell dormancy and to answer questions once thought impossible to solve:  Why do cancer cells become dormant? And what causes them to wake up and form a new cancer? Their Grand Challenge project aims to create a map of the biological environment around dormant cancer cells in space and time, and to uncover the processes that control them – with the ultimate aim of stopping an individual’s cancer from returning.

Led by Professor Peter Croucher (Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney), the international team involves researchers at Garvan, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the University of Adelaide in Australia, as well as Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the Babraham Institute (UK), University of Oxford (UK), Yale University (USA) and Washington University (USA).

Professor of Experimental Haematology at the University of Adelaide, Andrew Zannettino and his research group are based in the newly formed Adelaide BioMed City Precinct, which encompasses the Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.

“This research, while ostensibly “discovery” in nature, will allow the team to identify new targets to which drugs can be developed that specifically eradicate dormant cancer cells. In addition, we will develop biomarkers - measurable indicators of the presence of a cancer - which will help in the detection of dormant cancer cells and identify cancer patients who are at risk of relapse,” he says.

“Through our connections with the global clinical research community and the pharmaceutical industry, the team is well placed to accelerate drug development and approval.

“This research is likely to impact all cancer types where relapse is common and contributes to deaths after many years,” says Professor Zannettino.

The team will now be given the opportunity to draft their full research proposal with support from Cancer Research UK, and the winning proposals will be announced in late 2018.

The Grand Challenge award aims to revolutionise how we diagnose, prevent and treat cancer by providing international multi-disciplinary teams the freedom to try novel approaches, at scale, in the pursuit of life changing discoveries.

This is the second round of Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge award and last year four teams were awarded up to £20 million each**.

Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Round two of Grand Challenge is proving to be incredibly inspiring and the ambitious applications reflect the quality of global researchers this initiative has attracted to beat cancer sooner. We’re delighted with the teams we’ve shortlisted and look forward to hearing more about how they plan to tackle the toughest challenges in cancer research.”

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge advisory panel, said: “The challenges set for Grand Challenge have once again attracted some of the best researchers in the world. I’m looking forward to see how global collaboration could bring together diverse expertise, invigorate areas of research, and overcome barriers in ways that aren’t happening at this point in time.”

Professor Croucher said, “We're so excited by the prospect of support from the Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge. This is an unprecedented opportunity to crack the problem of why some cancer cells sleep, then wake.

“It was once thought that understanding cancer cell dormancy was an insurmountably difficult problem, because of the immense technological challenges in finding and studying sleeping cells. But recent research progress in this area has been remarkable – and our project harnesses world-leading technology and multidisciplinary expertise from across the globe so that we can advance our understanding at an unprecedented rate.

“Solving this challenge will revolutionise understanding of cancer and bring new meaning to a “cure” for cancer.”

For media enquiries about the team and their research, contact:

University of Adelaide

Professor Andrew Zannettino, Professor of Experimental Haematology, The University of Adelaide. andrew.zannettino@adelaide.edu.au  +61 (0) 401 102 950

Media Advisor: Crispin Savage – crispin.savage@adelaide.edu.au – 08 8313 7194

Garvan Institute of Medical Research: Dr Meredith Ross – m.ross@garvan.org.au – 0439 873258

QIMR Berghofer: Brooke Baskin – media@qimrberghofer.edu.au – 07 3362 0280 – 0427 179 216

For media enquiries about Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge award contact Stephanie McClellan in the Cancer Research UK press office on +44 20 3469 5314 or, out of hours, on +44 7050 264 059.

Notes to editor:

* See website for more information: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/how-we-deliver-research/grand-challenge-award

** These teams are working to identify preventable causes of cancer; creating virtual maps of tumours; preventing unnecessary breast cancer treatment; and studying tumour metabolism from the atomic to the tumour level. See previously funded awards:https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/how-we-deliver-research/grand-challenge-award/previously-funded-teams

See website for more information: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/how-we-deliver-research/grand-challenge-award/round-2-shortlisted-teams

About the research team:

Led by Professor Peter Croucher (Head, Bone Biology Division, Garvan), the multi-disciplinary research team includes researchers from four countries and with a wide range of expertise:


Prof Peter Croucher (Garvan) – Bone biology, tumour dormancy

Prof Susan Clark (Garvan) – Genomics and epigenetics

A/Prof Tri Phan (Garvan) – Intravital microscopy

Prof Mark Smyth (QIMR Berghofer) – Tumour immunology

Prof Andrew Zannettino (University of Adelaide) – Experimental haematology


Prof Ido Amit (Weizmann Institute) – Immunogenomics


A/Prof Claire Edwards (Oxford) – Bone oncology

Prof Wolf Reik (Babraham Institute) – Epigenetics


Prof Katherine Weilbaecher (Washington University) – Molecular oncology

Prof Madhav Dhodapkar (Yale University) – Haematology

About Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research.

Cancer Research UK’s pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.

Cancer Research UK receives no funding from the UK government for its life-saving research. Every step it makes towards beating cancer relies on vital donations from the public.

Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.

Today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer for at least 10 years. Cancer Research UK’s ambition is to accelerate progress so that by 2034, 3 in 4 people will survive their cancer for at least 10 years.

Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.

Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 0300 123 1022 or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.