Jake Olivier
Professor Jake Olivier has joined a team of researchers trialling a new drug combination to treat a rare blood cancer.

The study, which will test a new drug combination in high-risk Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) patients, will be led from the Adult Cancer Program at UNSW’s Lowy Cancer Research Centre and the Kirby Institute. 

MDS are a group of age-related blood disorders with low blood cell production and risk of progression to leukemia. High-risk MDS is a rare sub-group with low-survival rates.

“Studying rare cancers is a statistical challenge due to their small numbers", said Prof Olivier. "On one hand, we want cancers to not occur at all or at most infrequently, but this also makes it difficult to assess which treatments work and which ones do not.”

The trial is funded by a $3.3 million grant from the Medical Research Future Fund, and is part of a $35.9 million investment in rare cancers and diseases announced by the Australian Government last week. 

The team will be led by UNSW Medicine Professor John Pimanda. “Azacitidine is the drug currently available to high-risk MDS patients and it has response rates of around 50 per cent. Patients who initially respond well often progress on treatment and currently have no registered drug alternatives, poor quality of life and little hope,” Prof Pimanda said.

“Using patient samples collected from high-risk MDS patients, we have noted that combining azacitidine with a drug that promotes azacitidine incorporation into DNA improves blood cell production from MDS blood stem cells that are refractory to azacitidine alone.”

Together with the Therapeutic and Vaccine Research Program in the Kirby Institute, and medical researchers and haematologists in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the UK, this grant will allow researchers at the UNSW Lowy Cancer Research Centre to conduct a clinical trial to establish the safety and efficacy of the drug combination in high-risk MDS patients.

“This clinical trial will help bridge an unmet need in the current treatment landscape for higher risk MDS. A positive trial outcome could have a major impact on how these patients are managed in Australia and globally,” Prof Pimanda said.

UNSW Mathematics and Statistics has established a close relationship with The Lowy Cancer Research Centre, with several of our staff engaged in research collaborations. 

In addition to Professor Olivier's work with the Centre, Dr Maarit Laaksonen has spent time as a member and continues to collaborate with the Centre on cancer epidemiology projects.

Dr Clara Grazian has also commenced work with the Centre on statistical genetics projects.