Robots tailor treatment for kids' high-risk cancers

Specialised robots will rapidly test hundreds of treatments for kids with high-risk cancers at a $1.5M Children's Cancer Institute centre opened by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

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The Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove opens the Child Cancer Personalised Medicine Centre funded by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation. Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo

Specialised robots will now rapidly test hundreds of treatments for kids with high-risk cancers thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) to the Children's Cancer Institute based at UNSW's Lowy Cancer Research Centre.

The new ACRF Child Cancer Personalised Medicine Centre’s robots work 24/7 at Children’s Cancer Institute, which is part of the Lowy Cancer Research Centre on UNSW's Randwick campus.

One of only three drug discovery facilities in Australia, the Medicine Centre is being put to a new use in the quest to match the safest, most effective drugs to individual cancer patients’ treatment needs. By testing the efficacy of already-approved drugs and their combinations against each child’s unique cancer cells, the robots will help identify those most likely to kill their specific cancer.

The ACRF Child Cancer Personalised Medicine Centre was officially opened by His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and Patron of Children’s Cancer Institute. It houses robotics, libraries of known and clinically-approved drugs, expanded tumour bank facilities, tissue culture and a state-of-the-art laboratory information management system.

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The robots will identify the drugs and drug combinations most likely to be effective in stopping the growth of each individual child's cancer cell. Photo: Children’s Cancer Institute

The Centre will serve as operational headquarters for the Zero Childhood Cancer program, a national initiative of Children’s Cancer Institute and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. It is one of the most ambitious childhood cancer research initiatives ever undertaken in Australia, to tackle the most serious cases of infant, childhood and adolescent cancer.

UNSW Professor Michelle Haber AM, Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute, said the need for better treatment options is urgent.

“Every week in Australia, three children die of cancer. When standard treatments fail, these children have few options and little time.

“The ACRF Child Cancer Personalised Medicine Centre is the centrepiece of the most comprehensive program ever assembled in this country to analyse children’s cancers with a suite of tests, including several advanced gene sequencing [or genomic] tests, as well as drug sensitivity tests to better tailor treatment to the child’s individual cancer.

“The equipment that ACRF has provided will allow us to rapidly identify targeted treatments to recommend to clinicians in time to guide treatment decisions” she said.

Over the next four years, the Centre will receive and process hundreds of samples of patients’ tumours from partner children’s hospitals around Australia, will analyse the samples and test them against libraries of drugs approved for a range of adult and child cancers.

The drug-screening data that the robots will identify the drugs and drug combinations most likely to be effective in stopping the growth of each individual patient’s cancer cells, will form part of the reports that will go to clinicians, to guide treatment as part of the national clinical trial of the Zero Childhood Cancer Program which will open next year, led by the Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick.

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UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Nicholas Fisk shakes hands with Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (left), Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo

Mr Tom Dery AO, Chairman of Australian Cancer Research Foundation said that the growth of this program is a wonderful testament to the work that ACRF supports.

“We are here to challenge researchers and help push bold ideas forward. Being involved in and witnessing programs like Zero Childhood Cancer grow is exactly the sort of thing we hope for when we award funding.”

“Many of the partner research institutes involved in the national initiative have received grants from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation including Kinghorn Centre for Clinical Genomics, Garvan Institute of Medical Research in NSW; The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in VIC; South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in SA and the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in QLD,” said Mr Dery.

Professor Ian Brown, CEO of Australian Cancer Research Foundation says, “By funding essential technology in cancer research, our supporters enable institutes like Children’s Cancer Institute to attract the world’s best researchers to Australia, allowing them to carry out their vision of one day curing childhood cancer.”

The grant received from ACRF is also funding expanded tumour bank facilities, improved tissue culture capability, and a state-of-the-art data management system that will link the results of the tests conducted at Children’s Cancer Institute with the clinical data from patients being treated as part of the Zero Childhood Cancer Program at paediatric oncology facilities around the country.

ACRF has supported Children’s Cancer Institute, including the Zero Childhood Cancer Program, by providing three grants, totaling $5.1 million, towards cutting-edge cancer research equipment and technology.

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UNSW Professor Michelle Haber AM, Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute speaks at the launch. Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo