Team effort drives stomach cancer discoveries

Understanding how stomach cancer develops and progresses to invasive stages could lead to much-needed, better treatments.

Pinpointing the culprits

More than 2000 Australians are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year. Sadly most cases are detected at late stages when treatment options are limited.

A team led by WEHI researchers, Dr Lorraine O’Reilly and Dr Tracy Putoczki, investigated signalling molecules that may contribute to stomach cancer.

They focused on inflammatory signalling, as there is a clear link between inflammation and stomach cancer, as explained by Dr O’Reilly.

“Using a laboratory model of stomach cancer that we had developed, we measured the amounts of different inflammatory signalling molecules – called cytokines – to see which were present in stomach cancers as they developed and progressed. This revealed high levels of four key cytokines,” she said.

The next stage of the research was to inhibit these cytokines, and measure the impact on stomach cancer progression, said Dr Putoczki.

“We discovered that removing a cytokine called TNF could prevent early-stage stomach cancers from progressing to a more severe stage that, in humans, is much harder to treat,” she said.

“This was an exciting finding, as there are already medicines in clinical use that block TNF, most notably for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.”

“Our research suggests these therapies could be an effective and safe way to prevent the progression of stomach cancer to more invasive forms.”

Dr Lorraine O’Reilly

Boosted by consumer involvement

The involvement of research consumers – people who have lived experience of stomach cancer – was critical to the success of the research, Dr O’Reilly said.

“We valued the input of stomach cancer survivor Mr Frank Graham and his wife Ronnie, as well as Mrs Debra Clements, who nursed her husband through cancer. They conveyed to me the importance of considering current issues for cancer patients, such as early diagnosis and more effective targeted treatments. Their feedback helped me to refine the study design,” she said.

Dr Lorraine O’Reilly Senior Postdoctoral Fellow (Silke Laboratory, Inflammation Division) Mr Frank Graham (stomach cancer survivor)

Dr O’Reilly also consulted with consumers about her application for research funding. “Debra, Frank and Ronnie provided invaluable feedback on my grant application, helping me to successfully secure the essential support I needed to continue my research,” she said.

Mr Graham said that volunteering as a consumer at WEHI had changed his perspective on medical research.

“It’s my sincere hope that one day other people won’t have to go through what I’ve been through,” he said.

“I am incredibly optimistic about the future knowing there are people like Lorraine working behind the scenes to improve medical treatments and longer-term positive outcomes for people with stomach cancer.”

Mr Frank Graham