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Tackling cancer and COVID

Wednesday 21 April 2021

PA Research Foundation (PARF) funding is helping to advance a novel technology being pioneered in Brisbane, technology which is now being used in both cancer and COVID-19 research with promising results.

A methodology currently being used across two PARF funded cancer projects by Dr Arutha Kulasinghe, digital spatial profiling has also helped the Queensland University of Technology researcher to crack one of the mysteries of Covid-19.

Based at the Translational Research Institute (TRI), Dr Kulasinghe is leading a PARF funded project with Prof Ken O'Byrne using digital spatial profiling to look at tumorous tissue in lung cancer and head and neck cancer. He is also a team member in a PARF funded project looking at Squamous Cell Carcinoma skin cancers. Both projects are exploring how to increase the effectiveness of immunotherapy so more patients can benefit.

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe

Dr Kulasinghe said what makes spatial profiling so exciting is its ability to 'walk across the tumour' to give a more complete picture of what is taking place at the cellular level.

"Immunotherapies are the next tier of cancer therapeutics and are a therapy that uses your body's immune system to fight off the cancer," he said.

"Using these cutting-edge techniques, you get a real understanding for how the tumour cells are interacting with the immune cells, which is important because a lot of the new cancer rely on immune cells recognizing the tumour.

"It's your body's immune system that is recognizing the cancer as foreign, so it homes in and destroys the cancer, but cancer cells evolve, it can mask itself and find ways to hide from the body's immune system. What we try to do and using digital spatial profiling is to get an idea of what is occurring at the tumour interface, how the individual cells are interacting amongst themselves and with each other?

"We can then use this information to predict whether a certain immunotherapy would work in a lung cancer patient for example."

Arutha said his inclusion in the squamous cell carcinoma project where digital spatial profiling will be used to help the research team explore why as much as 50 per cent of squamous cell carcinoma patients respond to immunotherapy, was a great example of the collaboration that occurs at the PA Hospital campus where the TRI is co-located.

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe in the lab

"I moved to TRI last year and made sure to go over to the hospital and talk to clinicians because that's the benefit of being co-located on a hospital campus," he said.

"I presented some of the work at a meeting with Rahul (Dr Rahul Ladwa) and Sandro (Professor Sandro Porceddu) and they explained that they had skin cancer patients who responded well, and some patients that didn't do as well, and didn't know why that was.

"From there, we hypothesized that interrogating these tumours using spatial profiling may provide insight into why the patient responses differed."

Thanks to his cancer research and use of spatial digital profiling, Dr Kulasinghe was able to collaborate internationally on Covid-19, with investigators from the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which has resulted in a soon to be developed blood test that will indicate whether a Covid-19 patient will develop severe symptoms of the virus.

Using digital spatial profiling technology, he was able to identify a specific gene signature which can be measured in the blood of Covid-19 patients to indicate how severe their disease will be.

The discovery has the potential to save lives, with doctors able to get ahead of the virus in high-risk patients by treating them appropriately to ward off the worst symptoms of Covid-19.

A key supporter of Prof O'Byrne and Dr Kulasinghe's work has been PA Research Foundation's corporate partner In Vitro, who have now supported research in digital spatial profiling for two years.

"Their support in this research has been crucial, especially with the challenges we faced during COVID-19 with limited access to the lab. The fact that they renewed funding for us this year was such a relief, because obviously, you need longevity in your research ideas and questions," Dr Kulasinghe said.

"Year one was the discovery phase of the study and we identified a number of important cell types, which seem to associate with a better predictor of outcome for immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy in lung cancer. Now this year is about validating that data set in an expanded cohort.

"It means so much to us, it means we can now move on to the next step of our research. Otherwise, you develop all this work and then it stops and then you might not have funding for a couple of years and that idea doesn't develop further.

"It's close to the clinic. These are samples from patients that have been recruited at the PA Hospital by Prof O'Byrne's team.

"This work is translational in nature, we work with tumour specimens from patients on a daily basis and therefore are intrinsically motivated to find better, more effective therapies for patients based on their individual tissue profiles."

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