Institute news

Taking science to the next generation

Published 22 May 2020


Activation of a distinct genetic pathway can slow the progress of metastatic breast cancer

Published 10 January 2020




Researchers decipher a new way that immune cells detect infections and cancers

Published 10 January 2020


Prestigious grant funding ensures vital breast cancer research continues

Published 18 December 2019


New imaging centre to expose the secret life of cancer cells

Published 17 October 2019






John Brumby retires as ONJCRI’s inaugural Chair - Jenny Macklin to become new Chair

Published 16 October 2019


NHMRC grants focus on new cancer therapies research

Published 1 October 2019

180315 ONJCRI MR 0077



Community support boosts research technology

Published 4 June 2019





Repurposing existing drugs to treat gastric cancers

Published 15 May 2019






Love Your Sister and ONJCRI partnership focuses on the future of personalised medicine

Published 12 March 2019

LYS and ONJCRI partnership





Scanning barcodes to beat breast cancer

Published 12 March 2019

Dr Delphine Merino stands in the ONJCWRC garden

ACRF Award $2 Million To ONJCRI

Published 9 November 2018

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Ian Potter Foundation - Support of the ONJCRI

Published 8 November 2018


Dr Andreas Behren, Head of the Tumour Immunology Laboratory




For 25 year old, Shalini Guleria, science presents a world of curiosity and opportunity. It is this outlook that has led her to the position of PhD candidate at ONJCRI, while also pursuing ways to bring the magic of science to young children.

At the ONJCRI, Shalini’s research is focused on understanding the role of adipose tissue, or fat, in mammary gland development and also in breast cancer progression.

As part of the Cancer Single Cell Genomics Laboratory, Shalini explains that she is, “using a range of innovative techniques to explore this area and understand the underlying mechanisms in relation to cancer”.

As well as completing her PhD, Shalini is also the founder of a social enterprise called ‘Science Box’, which started in late 2018 in New Zealand. The aim of Science Box is to empower children to be involved in science. 

“I know that there are so many children out there aged between 5 and 12 who fear science,” says Shalini.

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Metastasis, the spread of tumour cells to distant sites, is the major cause of death for people impacted by cancer.  With no therapeutic cure available, it is clear that new treatments are needed urgently. 

In a study published today in the international journal, Cancer Research a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, investigators at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine) have shown that when the protein bone morphogenetic protein-4 (BMP4) is switched off, breast cancer can become more aggressive. BMP4 is active during fetal development and is maintained during adulthood in some healthy organs, including the breast.

In this study, led by investigators Dr Bedrich Eckhardt (a Susan G Komen Postdoctoral Fellow) and Prof Robin Anderson (Head of the Translational Breast Cancer Program), it was hypothesised that restoring BMP4 activity would block the ability of breast tumours to metastasise.

“At its core, this study has demonstrated that high levels of the BMP4 protein in breast cancer patients is associated with better outcome, linked to a reduction in metastatic breast cancer,” said Prof Anderson. 

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Cancer immunology experts from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (as the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine) have joined forces with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) and CSL Limited to determine the molecular basis for how an important component of the immune system, called gamma-delta T cells, detects infections and cancers.

Published in Science, the research team say this breakthrough of discovering how gamma-delta T cells become activated addresses a question that has baffled scientists for 25 years.

Co-lead author, Dr Andreas Behren, ONJCRI Tumour Immunology Laboratory Head said “these findings represent a key advance in our understanding of how gamma-delta T cells function to protect us from disease.”

“We believe that this breakthrough could ultimately lead to the development of new and improved immunotherapy treatments for millions of people worldwide impacted by cancer and infection,” he said. 

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Dedicated breast cancer researcher Dr Delphine Merino has been awarded the Susan G. Komen Career Catalyst Research Grant to further her vital research into breast cancer metastases. 

Through a partnership between Komen – a USA-based breast cancer funding organisation – and Cancer Australia, the grant cements a joint commitment by the funders to support research that will identify and deliver cures for breast cancer worldwide.  

This unique and highly competitive research grant will enable Dr Merino to lead her vital research into breast cancer metastases for the next three years.  

As Head of the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory in the Translational Breast Cancer Program at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, Dr Merino and her team aim to identify the most aggressive cells in patient tumours which are responsible for breast cancer progression and mortality. 

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Researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) will be able to study cancer tumour cells in greater detail at a state-of-the-art imaging centre thanks to a generous $2m grant by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF).

The ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment was officially opened on 4 October 2019, and will be used to examine how cancer cells are interacting with other cells around them, in their own micro environment. The insights, provided by imaging machines including Multiphoton and Confocal Microscopes and a NanoString Molecular Barcoding Scanner, will assist the development of new treatments, including new forms of immunotherapy and personalised medicine - relatively new approaches to cancer that are improving survival rates.

ONJCRI researchers will achieve this by studying a variety of tumour samples to investigate how tumour and other cells interact, and better understand which drugs impact specific tumour types. The data from these studies will then be used to identify trends and in turn inform the criteria for targeted treatment options and more personalised cancer treatments. 

In the future, these research findings could be provided to clinicians to help inform a patient’s personal treatment plan based on the predicted response of a patient’s unique tumour and cell interactions.   

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After five years as the inaugural Chair of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), The Hon John Brumby has announced that he will step down from the role, effective 1 November 2019.

Mr Brumby was instrumental in guiding the direction of the ONJCRI when it commenced in 2015 and has been a strong advocate and representative since this time.  Under his leadership, the research team has grown significantly and the outcomes from these projects are having life-changing impact for people with cancer.  His passion has consistently helped to motivate and drive the work of the ONJCRI team and we acknowledge the impact his leadership has had on the Institute’s success to date, including the more than 230 research collaborations and 140 scientific papers published over the last year.

ONJCRI is thrilled to announce that Ms Jenny Macklin has joined the ONJCRI Board and will take over the role of Chair from 1 November 2019.

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We are delighted to confirm that two Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) researchers have been awarded over $4.5 million in funding for the next 5 years in the inaugural round of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Investigator Grant scheme, announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

This significant investment will allow the ONJCRI, as the La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine, to continue research into the use of imaging techniques for targeted treatments, and the development of novel anti-cancer therapies. 

“As an Institute, we are committed to conducting research that we believe can have the greatest impact on the availability of new cancer treatments, and in turn improve outcomes for people impacted by cancer,” said Prof Ernst, Scientific Director, ONJCRI.

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For researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), it is critical that they have access to the latest cutting-edge equipment in order to undertake their groundbreaking research.

Without certain pieces of technology, it can be difficult for them to carry out their work with the specific attention to detail that cancer research demands. This equipment is often very expensive however, so generous donations to the ONJCRI are therefore crucial in order to acquire this technology.

Three women who work at Scotch College recently set up a fundraising event in memory of loved ones lost to cancer. They raised $37,000 at their Girls Night Out event, all of which was donated to the ONJCRI. Now, the funds have been used to buy a cryostat; a vital piece of equipment for researchers in the Translational Breast Cancer Program.

Dr Normand Pouliot, head of the Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory, is working to identify biomarkers (such as particular proteins, DNA and RNA) that could help clinicians predict which patients are likely to see their disease recur or who could benefit from certain treatments. Being able to utilise the cryostat has provided a massive boost to his research, and has also transformed the work of many of his ONJCRI colleagues.

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Over 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancers every year and 80 die from the disease each week.

With such hard hitting statistics, there is a very real urgency to develop new treatments for one of the nation’s most common cancers. Unfortunately, it often takes years for drugs to be made available after being discovered in the laboratory and the sad reality is that many patients can’t afford to wait this long.

Dr Ashwini Chand of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has published a paper this month through the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) that investigates a novel way of bypassing this lengthy development process. Her team in the Cancer Therapeutics Development Group is working to repurpose drugs already being used to treat other diseases for cancer therapy. Because these drugs have already passed clinical trial stage, they can hopefully be prescribed to cancer patients sooner.

“The concept of repurposing how an existing drug is used favours identifying drugs with greater tolerability in patients,” explains Ashwini. “An additional possible benefit for cancer patients and their families is that off-patent drugs are more easily accessible as treatments and are not as costly.”

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While we often hear in the media that the survival rate of women diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing, unfortunately the survival rate for women with secondary breast cancer – also known as metastatic breast cancer - paints a very different picture.

Love Your Sister and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) are now working together to try and change this statistic with the help of a dedicated Research Assistant who will work with ONJCRI researchers Dr Belinda Yeo  and Dr Delphine Merino  - two of Australia’s leading breast cancer research experts.

Belinda is a medical oncologist who treats breast cancer patients.  Delphine runs a breast cancer lab at ONJCRI that specifically deals with the cancer cells responsible for forming metastatic cancers. And while they make a great team, this new Research Assistant will bridge a gap to turn their ultimate goal of giving women with metastatic breast cancer alternative treatment options.

The initial 3 years study which will be conducted onsite at ONJCRI will see the Research Assistant obtain necessary consent from patients who are willing to donate their tumour sample to research, transport the precious samples to the laboratory and process it through the ONJCRI Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory part of the  ONJCRI Translational Breast Cancer Program led by renowned breast cancer researcher Professor Robin Anderson

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Dr Delphine Merino and her team are using a technique commonly found in the aisles of supermarkets to conduct cutting-edge cancer research.

Their work follows on from a paper Delphine co-authored which was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Her team at the Institute is using barcodes to identify, track and analyse the genetic properties of aggressive breast cancer cells that spread to other parts of the body or resist drug treatment.

Delphine co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Communications, which she produced with Dr Salin Naik, Professor Jane Visvader and Professor Geoffrey Lindeman at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Their study shows that the barcoding technique can be used to track how breast cancer cells spread to different parts of the body.

The researchers found that only a few cells were responsible for the metastasis of a tumour and these cells were the ‘seeds’ causing new tumour growth.

The research is an important step in understanding how cancer cells spread from the breast to other organs.

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ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment is a state of the art imaging centre to understand how and why tumours corrupt the normal cells of their immediate environment.

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation awarded the Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute $2million to establish this centre.  The centre enables ONJCRI and La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science to extend its ground- breaking work and accelerate the transition of laboratory results into cancer treatments that will benefit all Australian Cancer patients. 

“This new centre will allow us to look at the environment in which cancer cells and tumours grow, giving us the information we need to develop effective, targeted antic-cancer therapies”  

Prof Matthias Ernst, Scientific Director of ONJCRI & Head of the School of Cancer Medicine Latrobe University

To find out more about the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, please visit www.acrf.com.au

In 2015 The Ian Potter Foundation awarded a grant of $450,000 to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute to partially fund the purchase of a Vectra System.

This equipment allows researchers to visualise multiple cell types in a single tumour and therefore characterise normal and abnormal cells within a samples.  It has allowed us to comprehensively analyse a patient's cancer and immune make-up to identify biomarkers of treatment response. This informs the selection of patients for clinical trials with immune therapeutics. This equipment has quickly become a highly sought after resource by our research teams and collaborators, which prompted a submission to the Ian Potter Foundation in support of the automation equipment to improve the sample processing time and allow a higher throughout put of use by researchers.

The purchase of the Vectra system in 2015 was also supported with funding from ONJCRI, La Trobe University, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Austin Health.

In September 2018 the ONJCRI, with co-funding support from La Trobe University, and support of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre - VCCC and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, was awarded a further grant to support the purchase of the automation equipment. 

Along with these supporting research institutes, the equipment will support all member institutes of the Victorian VCCC including the PDI, Austin health and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.  The addition of this vital equipment to the ONJCRI is an illustration of the collaborative work of researchers from Melbourne cancer research teams.

The grants, each lead by Dr Andreas Behren, Head of the Tumour Immunology Laboratory, together provide a platform of technology that is at the forefront of cancer patient sample analysis.  As a member of the VCCC, this equipment will enhance the VCCCs capacity to perform world‐class medical research and further strengthen and enhance cross‐institutional collaboration including academic‐industry and hospital‐academic cross‐collaborations.

The ONJCRI welcomes researchers wishing to use the equipment in their research. To find out more please contact Dr Andreas Behren: andreas.behren@onjcri.org.au