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Test tube tumours grown to fight bowel cancer


Dr Rebekah Engel and Professor Helen Abud

Researchers at Cabrini Health and Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute are on the cusp of a breakthrough in the fight against bowel cancer.

Cabrini Health head of surgery Professor Paul McMurrick in partnership with researchers at Monash University are investigating finding the right treatment for an individual patient’s cancer faster by growing their tumours in the lab.

“Essentially, we’ve taken a portion of the tumour from patients who have an aggressive subtype of bowel cancer and grown them into mini tumours, which will allow the team to quickly determine how effective drugs are likely to be for each individual patient”, Prof McMurrick said.

The cells used to create the replicas come from tumour biopsies, so they retain the genetic blueprint of each patient’s original tumour.

“The hope is that testing such treatments in this way will allow researchers and oncologists to trial an array of drug combinations and determine how well each individual patient’s cells respond before patients commence chemotherapy.

“This information can then be used to prescribe effective care and avoid the side effects and costs associated with futile therapy.”

More than 17,000 people in Australia are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year with 4000 deaths are attributed to the disease.

Through the current trial, researchers are targeting an aggressive subtype of bowel cancer, that carry a mutation in a gene called BRAF.

About 10 per cent of patients with bowel cancer have this subtype, and they typically have a poor prognosis with reduced long-term survival.

Typical treatment involves surgery to remove the tumour, followed by chemotherapy, which can be ineffective and comes with a range of side effects.

Cabrini Monash Senior Researcher Dr Rebekah Engel said the results have the potential to make a real impact on treatment options.

“We want to determine treatments that are effective, and prevent patients from experiencing side effects,” Dr Engel said.

“Because we can grow the tumours pretty quickly, we think it’s possible to grow them, test a panel of drugs, and give feedback to the oncologist. This timely information may ultimately guide treatment decisions for patients before they commence therapy in the clinic.”