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News & Events January 20, 2022

WA’s role in cancer research

OpEd Opinion piece, The West Australian: 20 January 2022, by Professor Leedman AO


In the treatment of cancers, there’s both good and bad news. The good news is that much progress has been made in the survival rates of most cancers. Patients diagnosed with many types of cancer can expect to live for at least five years and often for much longer. The bad news is that we are facing a looming health threat in Australia from liver cancer.

The hunt to find long lasting effective treatments for liver cancer is providing a difficult challenge.

It is the only top ten cancer for which rates have continuously increased.

Over the past 40 years the incidence of liver cancer has grown by an average of 4.5% per year for men and 5.2% for women.

Between 2017 and 2021 alone, there was an approximate 30 per cent jump in new cases of liver cancer. Tragically, patients have just an approximate one in five chance of survival. It is rapidly becoming one of the hardest to treat cancers with a poor prognosis and few treatment options.

In the face of this, the work done in cancer research becomes increasingly important. Impressively, it is research being done here in Perth, in collaboration with others around the world, that is providing hope for liver cancer patients.

The Federal Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council has just awarded Perth researchers at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research nearly half a million dollars to evaluate new RNA-based treatments for liver cancer.

RNA treatments are becoming more commonly talked about in the community because both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are what’s known as messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, using mRNA as the core technology.

The pandemic has brought the spotlight to RNA-based drugs and vaccines. The world of RNA-technology is rapidly expanding and providing exciting opportunities to develop new treatments for various health conditions, especially those involving the liver. For example, new RNA-based drugs given once every 6 months have been developed to very effectively treat high cholesterol levels that emanate from the liver.

RNA treatments and vaccines focus on the RNA’s that naturally occur in our cells. RNA molecules carry instructions for making proteins. They can also help genes turn on and off, aid chemical reactions, alter other RNAs, and even build proteins.

RNA’s are like the software of the cell. A specifically engineered strand of RNA can be delivered to interact or produce specific functions within the cell.

Our work on this new approach for liver cancer is just one application of cutting-edge RNA-based drugs.

The drug being tested here for liver cancer, called mRx-7, inhibits the growth of liver cancer cells.

The grant will allow our team at the Harry Perkins Institute, together with collaborators in Sydney, Texas and Vancouver, to test mRx-7 alone and in combination with other standard treatments and to evaluate how well it is tolerated.

If successful, it would potentially change the way patients are treated and improve their outcomes. New treatments like this are urgently needed.

Success would position mRx-7 to progress further towards early-phase clinical trials in patients with liver cancer. This is the type of world-leading work we can do in Western Australia – work which could save lives and attract the best and brightest specialists and researchers to our shores.

While the science and technology driving this research is impressive, we should never lose sight of what disease means for cancer sufferers and their families.                       

Currently treatment is often a mix of surgery, radiation, one or a combination of drugs, which may include immunotherapy, then more surgery, further drugs, all interspersed with a variety of scans conducted in several locations across town. Some West Australians also travel to the Eastern States to receive treatment not available here, taking them away from loved ones when time is already short.

For anyone living outside of Perth or a couple of major centres such as Bunbury, the whole experience is worse. Their treatment will include many trips to Perth and lengthy periods away from home and family. Sadly, years of navigating a very challenging and stressful cancer journey is common.

Patient centred models which provide truly comprehensive one-stop-shop cancer care do exist in other States and countries where research, trials of new treatments such as mRx-7 and holistic patient care and support all take place in the one centre. This provides a much more effective and less stressful journey for people living with cancer and their families.

It would be a good vision for WA to aspire to while researchers develop new cancer treatments.


Professor Peter Leedman AO
Director, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research