Finding cures for children's genetic diseases


Official opening of new ATAC facility

A unique research facility, the Australian Cancer Research Foundation Telomere Analysis Centre (ATAC), is opening today at Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI) in Westmead.

The latest research from CMRI, which is coincidentally being published at the same time, illustrates why studying telomeres may lead to treatments for some of the most aggressive cancers.  

Telomeres are structures that cap the ends of chromosomes (which are bundles of DNA).  In normal cells, telomeres shorten gradually as part of normal ageing, but cancer cells develop methods to stop their telomeres shortening so they can keep multiplying relentlessly. One of these methods, called ALT, is often used by bone cancers, brain cancers and other aggressive types of cancer that are currently difficult to treat.

CMRI researchers previously discovered that normal cells have a "lock" mechanism which prevents ALT getting out of control, but the nature of this lock has remained a mystery. A few years ago, several research teams reported that ALT cancers often have damage in a specific gene called ATRX, leading to speculation that ATRX might be the elusive ALT controller.

Now, research at CMRI led by Dr Christine Napier with vital contributions from colleagues at the University of Minnesota, which has just been published, showed that ATRX is indeed the missing ALT lock. 
CMRI Director, Professor Roger Reddel, who was involved in the research, said "We think that losing this lock makes cancer cells vulnerable to treatments that normal cells are protected against. So we may have found an Achilles heel for ALT cancers." 

According to Professor Reddel, "This is far from the end of the story, because a very exciting aspect of Dr Napier's research is her discovery that there is a second ALT lock. Apparently, normal cells are so strongly protected against ALT getting out of control, that they use at least two locks, both of which have to be broken."

This work was done prior to the availability of the new ATAC facility, which includes cutting-edge equipment consisting of state-of-the-art microscopes and computer analysis stations and which, according to CMRI, will propel telomere-related cancer research to a new level. Outside of pharmaceutical companies, CMRI has the largest concentration of telomere researchers anywhere in the world.

Dr Napier said "Now that ATAC is opening, we can greatly accelerate the next phase of this work, which I expect will lead to significant advances in treatment of some very aggressive cancers."  

The organisation which made ATAC possible is the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) which donated $2 million towards the development of the facility. The Ian Potter Foundation also contributed $100,000.

“The ACRF’s Medical Research Advisory Committee - led by Professor Ian Frazer AC - assessed this research initiative as both nationally ground-breaking and internationally competitive. The ACRF and our supporters are very proud to fund this life-saving work at CMRI,” said ACRF Chief Executive, Professor Ian Brown.

Jim L'Estrange, CEO of Cancer Council NSW, whose funding went into Dr Napier's research said, "This finding is very exciting and could be the next big win in the fight against cancer. It's wonderful to see research ideas coming to fruition, and this wouldn't be possible without the community support who day in and day out raise vital funds for cancer research. 

"We congratulate Dr Napier on her outstanding work and we look forward to seeing how it develops, especially since her team now have access to cutting-edge technology at the new ATAC facility.”

Susannah Miall, Can Too Foundation CEO, said she was thrilled that their runners, swimmers and riders who challenge themselves every day are raising funds for researchers like Dr Napier.

“It heartens us to see progress like this in the cancer space and knowing our swimmers, runners and riders have the chance to play a role in cutting edge technology like this is very rewarding.  It’s incredibly inspiring for them to see how this unique facility will play a role in developing treatments for some of the most aggressive cancers,” said Ms Miall.

ATAC forms part of a multi-million dollar redevelopment of CMRI and the Westmead precinct to create a world-leading centre for health and medical research.

Donations towards the redevelopment of CMRI can be made by visiting the website here.