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CSIRO launches $5m project to treat ‘untreatable’ cancers

Cancer patients in Australia may soon have earlier access to revolutionary, highly targeted new treatment options through a $5.1m research partnership, announced today by the national science agency CSIRO and GenesisCare, one of Australia's largest cancer care providers.

Using an emerging area of science called theranostics, the project aims to develop new therapies against some of the most fatal and difficult-to-treat cancers affecting Australians, using agents that act like “homing missiles” to find and latch onto target markers on cancer cells.

We’re targeting cancers that are currently the most ‘untreatable’, such as brain, pancreatic and ovarian cancers and metastatic cancers, because that’s where we think we can make a profound difference,” CSIRO project lead Professor Stephen Rose said.

We’re exploring a very exciting approach called theranostic cancer treatment, which is a type of precision medicine that finds and attacks individual cancer cells in a person’s body – rather than attacking both cancerous and healthy cells.”

Using theranostics, which combines molecular level diagnostics and therapy, Professor Rose said the project will aim to discover cancer cells’ unique signatures, then design special molecules to find and attach themselves to those cells.

“These molecules can then show us exactly where the cancer is located in the body and deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells,” he said.

Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Australia, with almost 50,000 deaths from cancer estimated in 2019, including 3,051 deaths from pancreatic cancer, 1,549 deaths from brain cancer, and 1,046 deaths from ovarian cancer anticipated this year alone.

Treatments successfully designed in the project will be trialled locally in Australia through GenesisCare’s clinical network, giving Australian cancer patients access to new treatments sooner rather than waiting for treatments to be developed and trialled overseas first.

Associate Professor Peter O'Brien, chief medical officer at GenesisCare, said the project builds on research and ongoing clinical trials using theranostics.

“We’ve seen a rapidly developing body of evidence in theranostics in prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumours, and this partnership aims to accelerate the time it takes to bring findings from the lab to the clinic for other hard-to-treat cancers,” Professor O'Brien said.

There has been incredible progress in improving outcomes for many tumour groups; however, there’s been very little change in mortality rates for some complex cancers, like brain and pancreatic cancer, over the past 35 years.

Access to this form of treatment has historically been limited globally, and it’s hoped this investment may help spark a new theranostics industry in Australia to ultimately improve patient outcomes.

The potential for theranostics is huge. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery have long been the three core pillars of cancer treatment, and in years to come theranostics could be another major weapon in our fight against cancer, alongside other emerging treatments like immunotherapy, Professor O'Brien said.

GenesisCare is building a network of clinical centres to support research into new therapies and is providing compassionate access to treatment for patients who have exhausted conventional treatments for prostate cancer.

Currently, GenesisCare offers theranostics treatment in Hurstville (NSW), Perth (Western Australia), on the Gold Coast (Queensland) and in Windsor (UK), with plans to introduce the treatment to more centres in 2019.

The new research project forms part of CSIRO’s Probing Biosystems Future Science Platform and builds on CSIRO’s expertise in cancer biomarker research.

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