Health Minister visits Westmead and CMRI

Health Minister visits Westmead and CMRI

14th March, 2017


New Health Minister Greg Hunt visited the Westmead Institute for Medical Research and the Children’s Medical Research Institute in Sydney on 9 March. The Minister was accompanied by AAMRI President Professor Tony Cunningham, Director of the Westmead Institute, and Professor Roger Reddel, Director of CMRI.

The below is a summary of some of the research discussed with Minister Hunt while touring the institutes.

Precision medicine in ovarian cancer

The Minister met with Professor Anna deFazio and Professor Paul Harnett who are undertaking a collaboration between the Westmead Institute for Medical Research and the Westmead Hospital. They discussed their research into the care of cancer patients, and how this is leading to new research into ovarian cancer. This has included trialling a successful new treatment for a rare sub-type of ovarian cancer for which current standard treatment is ineffective. The Westmead team are leading an initiative in precision medicine in ovarian cancer, implementing advanced molecular diagnostic testing that will eventually help to individualise ovarian cancer treatment and improve clinical outcomes for women with this devastating disease.

Shingles vaccine

At the Westmead Institute the Minister met with Professor Tony Cunningham and discussed the major role the institute has played in developing and trialling a successful new Shingles vaccine. The vaccine consists of a single viral protein and immunostimulants by GSK. This vaccine has been shown to achieve very high efficacy rates of 90% in ageing Australians (>50 years) who are susceptible to shingles and its most feared complication, prolonged, severe pain. Success rates of 90% were even achieved in those over the age of 80 years.  The promise of this vaccine is to almost eradicate shingles as a disease, and with its unique composition, there is hope for other more effective vaccines in the elderly, whose immune system declines with age. Shingles was estimated to cost the Australian health system $33m per annum (Stein, A. et. al. Vaccine, 2009). The concept of using immunostimulants for the cells rather than the antibodies of the immune system for this type of viral disease was underpinned by early research studies by Professor Cunningham at the Westmead Institute.

Genetic signatures that predict the risk of progressive tissue inflammation and scarring

While at the Westmead Institute the Minister also spoke with Professor Jacob George, and heard how his team have led a national and international collaboration to identify genetic signatures that predict the risk of progressive tissue inflammation and scarring, irrespective of the disease or the organ involved. Advanced scarring of organs and tissues such as the liver, kidney, heart and lungs, is the cause for nearly 50% of deaths worldwide. Discoveries, such as those at the Westmead Institute hold promise for the development of prevision medicine tools that can be used for individualise patient management.

Bringing the benefits of the ‘omics revolution to patients

The Minister visited the Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) in Westmead and spoke with Professor Roger Reddel about a collaboration between the CMRI and Sydney Children’s Hospital Network, and Westmead Institute for Medical Research, which will bring the genomics revolution to patient care. CMRI has begun a global-first human cancer proteome project, mapping the proteins in every type of cancer. Using a disruptive technology, and a laboratory called ProCan that is custom-built for this project, they have started analysing thousands of different proteins in tens of thousands of cancer samples.

What it will mean for cancer patients, in the near future, is that when they are first diagnosed their cancer will be analysed rapidly and inexpensively, and then compared to the human cancer proteome database, so that the most effective treatment for each individual patient can be chosen with much greater precision than is currently possible. Just as importantly, treatments that would be ineffective in an individual patient will be avoided.

Pushing the genomics revolution forward and developing new treatments

While at CMRI the Minister also met with Professor Ian Alexander on a joint initiative between the institute and Sydney Children’s Hospital. Children bear the brunt of genetic disease, and naturally the first question a parent asks when their child has a genetic condition is “What’s wrong with my child?”. Today’s diagnostic power of modern genomics means that this question can usually be answered. However, the second question a parent will ask is “What can you do about it?” and unfortunately the answer is often “Little or nothing”. Researchers at CMRI are aiming to push the genomic revolution forward to realise its full therapeutic power, such that they can get positive answers to that second question. To do this they are focusing on the understanding of disease mechanism through excellence in functional genomics and the technology of gene transfer and genome editing to help repair faulty genes by an approach known as gene therapy.