A different dimension in cancer research

A UNSW-affiliated researcher is one of six young people awarded Cancer Institute NSW grants to find new ways to help prevent and treat cancer.

Phillippa Taberlay

A different approach ... Dr Taberlay

A UNSW-affiliated researcher is one of six young people awarded grants to find new ways to help prevent and treat cancer. 

Dr Phillippa Taberlay, who is a conjoint senior lecturer in UNSW Medicine based at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has been given an Early Career Development Fellowship through the Cancer Institute NSW.

The three-year $587,877 fellowship will allow Dr Taberlay to pursue her work in epigenetics, the study of heritable biochemical marks that are placed along the DNA without altering the underlying sequence.  The work will initially look at prostate cancer cells.

While epigenetic defects are involved in cancer development, they are also potentially reversible and Dr Taberlay says her work could ultimately expand the benefit of existing drugs that have proved to be very successful in treating leukaemia patients. By unlocking any hidden potential of an already existing therapy, this could mean that patients may have access to a different  treatment, that is already known to be safe, relatively quickly.

Dr Taberlay says her team will be one of the first to try to understand how epigenetic changes impact on the 3D structure of DNA and vice versa. The researchers will specifically map the 3D structure of DNA and ask whether this is different between normal and prostate cancer cells.

“We are just beginning to understand how important the 3D structure of our DNA actually is. One reason is that it ensures that genes are expressed as they should be by physically bringing critical gene control centres together inside cells so that they can interact," she says. "We are using sophisticated techniques to map these 3D loops to determine whether there is a difference between normal and prostate cancer cells, and how it may drive disease.”

The team will also test whether a next-generation epigenetic therapy can be used to treat the prostate cancer cells, restoring a more normal 3D structure.

The work could be an important step forward to the goal of personalised medicine.

“Genetic and epigenetic cancer research has enabled us to see that not all cancers are the same," she says. "We hope to use the new types of knowledge from this study in the future to determine whether a patient has a certain sub-type of a particular cancer, which may allow us to tailor their treatment and give them the best chance of survival.”

The Cancer Institute NSW is Australia’s first statewide, government-funded cancer control agency.

Media contact: Susi Hamilton, UNSW media, 0422 934 024