Organoids a powerful way to probe bowel cancer biology

Date: 10/10/2018


Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in Australia.

In order to increase survival rates for colorectal cancer, we need to apply current therapies effectively and develop new treatment targets. A personalised cancer medicine approach could transform therapeutic management of disease through individualised treatment strategies tailored for each patient, providing the greatest possible benefit with the fewest side-effects.

Our research aims to predict patient sensitivity to common treatment regimens using a three-dimensional tissue model of a patients’ tumour, called organoids. Organoids are essentially mini-tumours that can be grown in a laboratory dish from tissue biopsies, and mimic the complex features of the tissue from which they are derived. This powerful research tool can be used to test common cancer therapeutics to determine if a patient is likely to respond to treatment. This project was recently awarded a Cancer Australia grant, supporting our collaborative efforts with local and interstate research teams. This research has also been presented at both national and international meetings, receiving a travel award for scientific excellence at the 2018 International Society for Stem Cell Research meeting.

Another exciting project, led by postdoctoral researcher Dr Rebekah Engel, focuses on predicting complete pathological response for patients who have rectal cancer. A significant proportion of patients who have rectal cancer (15 to 25 per cent) who are treated with chemoradiotherapy achieve a pathologic complete response, with histological examination reporting no residual tumour. In the absence of residual tumour, these patients could be spared from radical surgery to remove all or part of the rectum. The impact on quality of life following surgery is significant, with patients experiencing a range of dysfunction and colostomy complications.

This project aims to predict which patients are likely to achieve a complete pathological response through chemotherapy and radiotherapy-sensitivity testing on their own tumour-derived organoids. Recently awarded a Cabrini Foundation research grant, this research has potential to be practice-changing, providing clinicians with a technique to identify patients who could be managed through a non-surgical ‘watch and wait’ approach, ultimately sparing these patients from unnecessary surgery, preserving organ function and improving quality of life.

The colorectal cancer organoid program is a collaborative effort between the Cabrini Monash University Department of Surgery led by Associate Professor Paul McMurrick and the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute’s Epithelial Regeneration Laboratory led by Associate Professor Helen Abud.

Read more about research at Cabrini in our Cabrini Institute Annual Report 2017-18