Behind the science: Kids’ cancer research dynamic duo

Behind the science: Kids’ cancer research dynamic duo

Dr Raelene Endersby and Professor Nick Gottardo, co-heads of the Telethon Kids Institute’s Brain Tumour Research Team, have been kicking goals together for a decade.

Dr Raelene Endersby and Professor Nick Gottardo, co-heads of the Telethon Kids Institute’s Brain Tumour Research Team, have been kicking goals together for a decade.

A seed was planted many years ago that grew into one of the most powerful partnerships in children’s cancer research in Western Australia.

In 2005, at the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, two Western Australians with a passion for positive change recognised in each other their shared commitment to better cancer therapies.

Researcher Dr Raelene Endersby and clinician Professor Nick Gottardo came to know and respect each other during years of scientific endeavour. They’d regularly see each other in the laboratory as they worked until late in the evenings, and on weekends. They eventually struck up a professional friendship that lasts to this day.

After Nick returned to Perth in 2008, and within a few years launched a brain tumour research lab, he knew the level of passion he needed on his team to make it a success. He went about attracting Raelene back to WA.

Today, a decade later, the dynamic duo boasts a raft of research successes. They’re particularly proud of the international clinical trial currently underway of a novel drug combination hoped to increase cure rates for medulloblastoma. It’s called the ‘St Jude-ELIOT trial’, and is running in Australia and the US under the lead of the Telethon Kids Cancer Centre and in collaboration with St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Perth Children’s Hospital and Queensland Children’s Hosiptal.

The Brain Tumour Research Team at Telethon Kids Institute that Nick and Raelene now run as a partnership recently received a grant from The Kids’ Cancer Project for an exciting collaboration with a number of groups from Australia and the US. It looks into immunotherapy, as opposed to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, to teach the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

“The research that we and others have done has highlighted important differences between brain cancers and other cancers in the body,” Raelene says. “Some immunotherapies work very well in treating melanoma. But the immune cells that are in the brain are unique, they don’t exist in other parts of the body. The immunotherapies that work well for other cancers don’t work well in the brain.”

A while ago, Nick, Raelene and the team began collaborating with Asst Professor Siddhartha Mitra from the University of Colorado. Asst Professor Mitra has been working on the development of an antibody that stimulates specific immune cells in the brain that are found in tumours the researchers are attempting to target.

“The grant is specifically about high-grade glioma, which is a type of brain tumour that we have studied,” Raelene says. “Our studies showed these tumours are full of these immune cells that are just sitting there, dormant. They’re not doing anything.”


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The team is hoping to use immunotherapy to wake the cells, to stimulate them to begin targeting the tumour.

“These immune cells are really good at finding bacteria and viruses in the brain,” she says. “That’s what they’re there for. Their job is to protect the brain from disease. But they’re not recognising the cancer cells in the same way. With this antibody we’re hoping to activate them to better recognise the cancer.”

Grant funding, Nick says, is vital in the success of the team’s research. Adult cancers attract the lion’s share of cancer funding from major bodies. Kids’ cancer researchers are often left to fight over a much smaller piece of the funding pie. That's why they rely on organisations like The Kids’ Cancer Project.

“At least 50 per cent of what we do is funded through philanthropy,” Nick says. “To be successful in research you have to be innovative – never complacent.”

“We advocate for our cause, we have a great team and we have a strong supporter in The Kids’ Cancer Project.”