Mater Research investigates if bone marrow cells could protect against the side effects of cancer therapy

Thursday 17 June 2021

We used to talk about “survivors” as people who were cancer-free for at least five years.

Now, a new way of thinking is emerging-survivorship, exploring life after diagnosis for both the people diagnosed and their families. It’s about the pursuit of optimal health and quality of life.

Therapy for cancer is not without its unique challenges. Current cancer therapies – whether it be chemotherapy, radiation and newer targeted cancer therapies and immunotherapy approaches - also damage healthy cells and can lead to blood system toxicity.

If severe enough, this can interrupt, or even completely stop treatment. This leaves patients in the unfortunate position of experiencing the debilitating negative side effects of cancer treatment, without receiving the benefit of the treatment.

Director of Biomedical Research and the Bones and Immunology Laboratory lead, Professor Allison Pettit is tackling this challenge, head on. Allison and her team have a bold vision – they want to find new ways to overcome the immediate and long-term consequences of cancer therapy to maximise treatment benefits and alleviate cancer treatment side effects.

“Cancer is a significant health challenge in our community and it touches the lives of every single Australian. Mater’s cancer care vision is clear - to deliver the very best integrated healthcare for people living with cancer.”

Bone marrow failure is one of the most common side effects of cancer therapy causing hospitalisation, and at its most severe can lead to death.

Allison and her team are investigating whether a specific type of cell in the bone marrow can protect against the side effects by maintaining the pool of blood stem and progenitor cells. Their goal is to better understand the protective mechanisms that exist within bone marrow and blood stem cells to sustain a lifetime supply of the inordinate number of essential white and red blood cells. They are using the knowledge generated to discover ways to exploit and amplify these protective mechanisms so that we can reduce both the immediate and long-term side effects of cancer therapy on bone marrow.

Professor Pettit and her team have a unique combination of technical skills and critical resources to achieved an internationally competitive advantage to successfully undertake the precision experiments that allow this ambitious research program to come to fruition.