Image - UNSW Medicine and SPHERE Cancer Clinical Academic Group (Cancer CAG) seed grant recipients announced

Cancer research at UNSW Medicine is recognised as an area of strength, supported as part of UNSW Sydney’s 2025 strategy. Projects and programs of work aim to benefit individuals at all stages of their encounter with cancer - from prevention to intervention and support.

With an increased focus on collaboration and the ability to invest in innovative research, UNSW Medicine and SPHERE Cancer CAG have provided seed funding for two new projects. They address strategic areas of focus(link is external) and focus on building novel programs and solutions or transforming existing research across disparate organisational/geographical hubs into a new, harmonised entity.

“This seed funding gives our cancer researchers the opportunity to work with our local area health districts and Medical Research Institutes in collaboration to develop these projects. Our goal is to support research that will improve outcomes for people affected by cancer. UNSW Medicine is privileged to support and fund the projects,” said Scientia Professor Michael Barton, lead academic for the Cancer CAG.

Congratulations to the projects awarded:

  • Understanding the role of the immune microenvironment in endocrine resistant ER+ breast cancer - a multi 'omics and machine learning approach ($200,000 over 2 years), led by Dr David Gallego-Ortega(link is external), Garvan Institute [Academic Lead] and A/Prof Ewan Millar(link is external), St George Hospital SESLHD [Clinical Lead], and includes Clare Stirzaker, Renee Whan, Emad El-Omar, Philip Doble.
  • Linked data platform for adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer: improving survivorship care through population data analytics ($200,000 over 2 years), led by Dr Marina van Leeuwen(link is external), UNSW [Academic Lead] and Dr Antoinette Anazodo(link is external), SCHN and SESLHD [Clinical Lead], and includes Claire Vajdic, Georgina Chambers, Katherine Boydell, Richard Cohn

Project Abstracts are included below:

Seed Grant 1 – Area of Focus: Bringing ‘OMICs’ into clinical practice

Understanding the role of the immune microenvironment in endocrine resistant ER+ breast cancer - a multi 'omics and machine learning approach

Estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer is the commonest type of breast cancer which usually responds to hormone blocking drugs following surgical excision. However, it is not well understood why approximately 30% of these tumours are resistant to hormonal therapy, leading to relapses and metastatic disease which require chemotherapy with a resultant poor prognosis. A new emerging area of interest is the role that local tumour immune microenvironment and the influence that the gut microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms that live in our bodies) may play in affecting treatment response. To address these questions, we have established a treatment approach where hormonal therapy starts immediately at diagnosis, for 10-14 days whilst waiting for surgery. Comparison of the tumour biopsy on treatment with the pre-treatment biopsy, allows us to predict the likely success or failure of hormonal treatment within 2 weeks of surgery. We will study responders and non-responders using state of the art molecular techniques and artificial intelligence approaches to detail changes in the tumour microenvironment, DNA, RNA, protein and gut microbiome. This study offers the significant possibility of being able to understand why treatment does not work in some patients and may pave the way for future studies to “engineer” the gut microbiome to optimise the treatment response of all patients to achieve a better outcome.

SPHERE partners: Garvan Institute of Medical Research, St George Hospital SESLHD, UNSW Sydney, UTS, WSU

Other partners: Kinghorn Cancer Centre, Microbiome Research Centre, NSW Health Pathology

Seed Grant 2 – Area of Focus: Living better with and after cancer

Linked data platform for adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer: improving survivorship care through population data analytics

Adolescents and young adults (AYAs; aged 15-39) living with a cancer diagnosis have unique needs because of the types of cancers which occur, and the stage of life at which they are diagnosed. AYAs living with cancer have increased risk of treatment-related side effects and psychological issues relative to their peers. These may arise several years after treatment. Furthermore, infertility caused by damage to the reproductive organs are of a special concern for this age group. Given their age at diagnosis, and that survival is relatively high, the lifelong impact from cancer can be considerable.

There are no large-scale, population-based survivorship data for AYAs diagnosed with cancer in Australia. Most of what is known comes from studies of childhood cancer survivors, or from international studies in which the health care system differs from that in Australia. We therefore do not know the burden of long-term medical and psychological side effects, or problems with fertility. Nor do we know which patient groups are most at risk, or the follow-up care that they receive. Without this information, we cannot hope to develop best-practice, follow-up care models for AYAs with cancer in Australia.

We therefore propose record linkage between key datasets for all AYAs diagnosed with cancer in NSW/ACT, Victoria and QLD, including: cancer, hospitalisations, emergency department, mental health, perinatal, Medicare services, pharmaceutical, and deaths datasets, and a sample of general practice data. This will include almost 80% of Australia’s AYA cancer population (estimated minimum study size 68,000). These datasets have never before been combined.

We will use two example projects to demonstrate the value of the dataset, including:

  1. Psychological effects at one, two, five and ten years after cancer diagnosis, compared with their peers in the general population;
  2. Use of fertility preservation before and after cancer treatment, and birth outcomes in those patients whose babies were conceived using assisted reproductive technology.

Our team includes recognised experts in health data science, AYA cancer treatment and survivorship care, mental health, and fertility. This will be the most comprehensive dataset to date and represents the best available opportunity to investigate health outcomes and health service use to improve care for this vulnerable patient group. Importantly, the dataset that we establish, together with the example projects, will provide an excellent springboard to attract funding for further research.

SPHERE partners: Black Dog Institute, SCHN, Prince of Wales Hospital SESLHD, UNSW

Other partners: Sydney Youth Cancer Service, Maternal, Newborn and Women’s Health (CAG)