More research, less risk.
Dr. Fiona Simpson and her team make world-class discovery in fight against cancer.
In a world first, Dr Fiona Simpson – supported by the PA Research Foundation and the Zarraffa’s Foundation – and her research team at the University of Queensland have discovered a way for doctors to predict whether therapy for Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (HNSCC) will work or not and a potential way to improve it. They’ve done this using a drug that some people pack in their carry-on luggage.
Her team found that Stemetil, a motion sickness drug, might help non- responding patients become responders.
When doctors diagnose head and neck cancers, they must decide which treatment they will use to fight it. This might mean chemo-radiation therapy, surgery or combinations of both. There can be harmful side-effects – worth the risk if the patient responds to the treatment, but distressing if they don’t.
“With cancer treatment, we can’t always tell who it’s going to work for, which means some patients spend lots of money for side-effects and no benefits,” Dr Simpson explains. “With our discovery we hope to eliminate the guess-work and improve outcomes for cancer patients.
“It is important to note that we still don’t know everything about cancer, and we don’t know the exact impact of this discovery.”
“But we have hope.”
Every year, more than 4,000 Australians are diagnosed with HNSCC. Prognosis is poor, and even after the development of an antibody that increased HNSCC survival rates, it was unclear which patients would survive.
Dr Fiona Simpson, an expert in cell trafficking, studied responsive patients’ tumours and identified an important pattern that demanded more investigation.
So, earlier this year, she teamed up with UQ’s Dr Nicholas Saunders and UQDI’s Dr James Wells, an immunology researcher, to study the behaviour of these tumour cells.
The antibody used to kill cancer only works when it hits the tumour’s proteins, which in some people are hidden inside the tumour. In this case, patients will not respond to cancer medication but will experience its nasty side-effects.
Together the scientists identified a new role for motion sickness medication. Using Stemetil, they created a treatment that forces these hidden proteins to the surface of the tumour so that the antibody can target it more accurately.
“We were using an inhibitor of a protein called dynamin to move the proteins to the surface of the tumour and cluster them. But we were told we’d never be able to put dynamin into a human body,” Dr Simpson says.
“Then we discovered that Stemetil has a side-effect that makes it a really good dynamin inhibitor. Stemetil has been doing exactly what our treatment needs it to do for 30 years, at quite high doses. Suddenly, we had the key ingredient.”
They also observed an immune response to the antibody. Whereas cancer cells usually send out a signal that stops them from being detected, Dr Simpson’s treatment was causing the therapy antibodies to act as a bridge between the immune cells and the tumour cells.
So far the results are promising, and clinical trials on patients are now being held at Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane where the PA Research Foundation is working hard to raise funds to continue these trials.
Although this is great news, Dr. Simpson is concerned for the future of such discoveries because a lack of funding of funding is closing many cancer research labs around the country.
“A lot of people have the wrong idea about cancer research. It’s not a highly paid, glamorous job. Because there isn’t enough funding, some of the world’s best scientists go unemployed.”
“At the moment, we are relying on charity donations and government grants. When I arrived in Australia the chances of receiving a grant was one in four. Now, it’s less than one in ten.”
Dr Simpson’s research lab has received financial support from a number of NGOs and businesses, including the PA Research Foundation and $25,000 from Zarraffa’s Coffee in 2015.
“You wouldn’t realise how huge that is for us – it’s a year’s budget!”
Financial hardship isn’t new for the fiery Scottish doctor. She left school at 17, worked in an Edinburgh pub at night as a “broke and starving” student before going on to graduate from the University of Cambridge, and receiving a Wellcome Trust International Postdoctoral Fellowship before running of her own lab.
But her commitment to beating cancer and improving paitients’ lives comes as much from her mother’s death as her passion for science.
“I’ve lost my mum to cancer. The experience was horrible, and it made me want to reduce the risk of it happening to other people.”
“My partner Craig also lost his mum to leukaemia. Our lab motto is: ‘We’re not fighting against cancer, we’re getting revenge,” she says.
“We scientists are passionate about what we do, as if we were born to be scientists. However, without the funding, we can’t continue, which means less medical progression and higher risk for cancer patients.”
While the Australian Government provided nearly two thirds of the $1 billion spent on research projects between 2006 and 2011, including the Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme (PdCCRS) introduced in 2013, cancer is still the major cause of death in Australia.
The role of research in saving cancer patients is indisputable. The rate of surviving five years after diagnosis, for example, increased from 47 percent to 66 per cent between 1982- 1987 and 2006-2010.
However, funding isn’t allocated to drug research alone; it also goes towards detection, diagnosis and monitoring methods, understanding lifestyle risks like diet and weight, support programs and rehabilitation, along with money invested in unsuccessful projects.
Dr Simpson says the misconception of what researchers do with government money might affect whether people and organisations are willing to put their hands in their pockets as well.
“People might think we’re the faceless ‘evil scientists’ in it for the money, but in reality, we’re normal people trying to save lives.”
“Along with discoveries like this one, we’re doing everything we can. And when we finally have more people walking out of hospital, I’ll be happily retired on a beach somewhere, because I’ll have done what I set out to do.”
“But until then, I am doing all this for my mum.”