UNSW research teams win grants to tackle pancreatic cancer

Two top UNSW cancer researchers, Professor Christopher Heeschen and Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips, have been awarded grants for research to fight one of the world’s deadliest cancers.

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Professor Chris Heeschen and Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips.

Leading UNSW cancer researchers Professor Christopher Heeschen and Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips, who lead teams at the Lowy Cancer Research Centre and UNSW Medicine, have been awarded funding for their work into pancreatic cancer, one of the world’s deadliest cancers.

The Stem Cells & Cancer Group, led by Professor Heeschen, and the Pancreatic Cancer Translational Research Group, led by Associate Professor Phillips, were awarded $100,000 each by The Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation to pursue further study in cutting edge treatments and early diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer has a survival rate of just 8%, and is predicted to be the second leading cause of cancer deaths by 2030. More than 3300 Australians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018.

“This generous support from the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation will allow us to test novel therapeutic approaches to pancreatic cancer, with early support of projects critical in improving health outcomes for patients,” says Associate Professor Phillips.

Associate Professor Phillips aims to use a new clinical-grade drug and gene therapy to starve both pancreatic cancer cells and cancer ‘helper cells’ to shut down their tumour-promoting activity. Currently, the most effective treatments for cancer target the cancer cells, yet ignore these other critical helper cells which drive tumour growth and spread.

Professor Heeschen’s team will develop cell-based immunotherapy, which enhances the body’s ability to use the immune system to attack cancer. Immunotherapy has shown great promise in treating other types of cancer. 

Professor Heeschen was awarded the Avner Foundation Woolworths Innovation Grant, and Associate Professor Phillips was awarded the Michael Luscombe Innovation Grant. They were two of four grants awarded nationally. Associate Professor Phillips’ grant is her second received from the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

Progress in treatment of pancreatic cancer is hindered by the aggressive nature of the disease and the large proportion of cases that are inoperable. People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer don’t typically experience early warning signs or vague symptoms, meaning the cancer is harder to treat.

The Avner Foundation is exclusively dedicated to pancreatic cancer and is named in honour of Avner Nahmani, a former senior executive of Woolworths Limited, who died 13 months after being diagnosed with the disease.