Pancreatic cancer research receives $8m philanthropic funding boost

Posted: 24 May 2024

An exceptional $8 million, 10-year philanthropic investment will spearhead new treatments for pancreatic cancer and create a new dedicated research centre at WEHI.

The centre, to be established thanks to an investment by Australian business leader and WEHI President Jane Hemstritch AO, aims to help close the significant survival gap between pancreatic cancer and other cancers.

The Hemstritch Centre of Excellence for Pancreatic Cancer Research will provide a leading team of scientists and clinicians with long-term funding to ask big research questions. They aim to make major progress in treating what is expected to be Australia’s second biggest cancer killer by 2030.

A devastating disease

Pancreatic cancer is a major cancer killer in Australia, with 3600 people dying from this disease each year.

Due to a lack of specific symptoms in the early stages, most patients are diagnosed with advanced stage cancer affecting nearby organs. More than half of people with pancreatic cancer die within the first six months of diagnosis and just 11.5% will survive five years.

Sustained research investment has significantly improved survival outcomes for other cancers, including skin, breast, prostate and many blood cancers, but the progress in pancreatic cancer has been slow.

It is hoped the $8 million, 10-year philanthropic investment will be a much-needed boost that accelerates WEHI-led research into pancreatic cancer, and helps close the survival gap with other cancers.

WEHI director Professor Ken Smith said research investment was critical, given the growing number of people being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the poor survival rates.

“This investment is cause for hope for people with this most devastating of diseases, and I commend Jane for her vision, passion and generosity,” said Prof Smith.

Game-changing treatments

The funding will allow researchers to make significant headway with an ambitious 10-year program of research planned.

Associate Professor Tracy Putoczki, a laboratory head in WEHI’s Personalised Oncology division, is collecting patient tumour samples that will be used to help personalise treatment by determining which therapies are most likely to work for each patient.

Her research team is using a range of patient samples, including organoids: miniature tumours that are grown in the lab from patient biopsies, allowing researchers to test hundreds of drugs on each cancer, which was not previously possible.

“Time and money have allowed scientists to make exceptional gains in treating other cancers, like melanoma, which until recently was as devastating as pancreatic cancer, until the game-changing discovery of immune therapies,” said Assoc Prof Putoczki.

The funding will help her team develop an integrated, patient-focused, translational research platform to establish better treatment strategies and support the development of a pipeline of new drugs.

“This innovative platform is a game-changer. By integrating clinical and laboratory research onto the same platform, it enables more coordinated scientific research, to find the right interventions for each patient, when they need it,” said Assoc Prof Putoczki.

Learning from every patient

The funding will also support the expansion of the PURPLE Pancreatic Cancer Translational Registry led by consultant medical oncologist at WEHI Dr Belinda Lee, a large-scale database that tracks the treatment journey of over 4000 patients at 48 cancer centres across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

This first-of-its kind translational registry was established with philanthropic support at WEHI in 2016 and enables de-identified clinical and research data to be used in multiple ways to help clinicians improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

The new funding will allow the PURPLE registry to investigate novel trial designs for pancreatic cancer, and to be expanded to include a portal that supports patients, including allowing them to be matched to clinical trial opportunities.

A lasting legacy

Jane Hemstritch understands the devastating impact of pancreatic cancer. Her late husband, Philip, died of the disease, two-and-a-half years after diagnosis. Years earlier Philip’s father, Reg, died of the disease on the day he was diagnosed.

The experience of watching Philip’s treatment led Hemstritch to become a strong advocate for personalised medicine.

She hopes the Hemstritch Centre of Excellence for Pancreatic Cancer Research will help people rapidly access new, individualised therapies, given pancreatic cancer patients generally have so little time.

“The research team includes clinician-scientists, which will speed up the application of their discoveries to patients,” Hemstritch said.

“WEHI is a world-class medical research institute, and like all others, requires funding from a range of sources to do its work, and I’m pleased to be in the privileged position of being able to provide support.”

The $8 million investment also includes funding for a new pancreatic cancer research collaboration between WEHI and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in NSW, part of a broader network of clinicians and scientists working together to improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients.

While the investment provides a substantial start for the research team, further funding will be needed for the centre to expand its program and to meet its ambitious aims.

Hemstritch said long term philanthropic investment helps researchers focus on their science, freeing up time that would otherwise be spent applying for grants, and allowing a longer-term view.

“Finding effective therapies for this most dreadful of cancers is critically important, so we need to set researchers up so they can make a concentrated effort over the long term – philanthropy is critical to achieving this,” she said.

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