Nov 20, 2017

The Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF) is a small team tackling a very big problem. We’re fighting liver cancer; the fastest increasing cause of cancer mortality in Australia and the second biggest cause of cancer related deaths worldwide.

Our Liver Cancer Unit (LCU) has established a number of research projects to address liver cancer on multiple fronts, including targeting cancer stem cells. The goal is to increase the number of treatment options, which currently stands at one.

Cancer stem cells are a specialised population of cells that can reproduce themselves and sustain cancer.

Imagine cancer as a beehive, with the stem cell the queen bee and ordinary cancer cells the worker bees. If you take out the worker bees (which is effectively what chemotherapy does), the queen bee can simply produce more. Take out the queen bee and you could wipe out the entire hive.

“A tumour is initiated and controlled by cancer stem cells. These cells are resistant to chemotherapy and can grow new cells,” LCU Research Officer Dr Aparna Jayachandran says.

Cancer stem cells consist of a rare combination of genes and are very difficult to grow. Our team has discovered a way to enrich and culture these cells, making them one of just a handful of labs in the world growing cancer stem cells.

“There are a lot of things we still don’t know. Growing these cells in our lab gives us a clearer picture and will help us work out how to kill these cells,” Dr Jayachandran says.

Dr Jayachandran is now finger printing these cells to identify unique protein signatures, i.e. what makes the queen bee different to the worker bee. By examining the characteristics of cancer stem cells the team can develop treatments that specifically target weaknesses.

“It’s very exciting and cutting edge work. I’m not aware of any other group in the world looking at these unique gene signatures of cancer stem cells,” Dr Jayachandran says.

Our long-term goal is a cure for cancer. We know it’s ambitious and that it will take years or even decades, but based on this research we believe it could be possible within our life-time.

“There is a real potential for this research to cure liver cancer. If we can take these cells out it would revolutionise how cancer is treated,” Dr Jayachandran says.