News & Media

Synchrotron Breakthrough Takes Science Closer To New Cancer Treatments

Scientists using the Australian Synchrotron have achieved a medical imaging breakthrough which could lead to the development of new cancer treatments, Premier John Brumby announced today. Scientists from The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) have observed for the first time how the molecular ‘suicide switch’ regulating the life span of normal cells is flipped. By seeing the actual mechanism, researchers can now develop new drugs and treatments that effectively flip the ‘cell suicide’ switch back on, enabling infected cells to die and stopping the disease in its tracks. “The Australian Synchrotron has enabled scientists to confirm what was only theory until now,” Mr Brumby said. “For the first time, Australian scientists can see how this key protein in infected cells has its molecular ‘suicide’ switch turned off. “This medical imaging breakthrough now enables scientists to more effectively develop new drugs or therapies that can turn this switch back on. “Seeing precisely how the switch is made and flipped is an important milestone on the long journey to anti-cancer drug development.” Mr Brumby said development of drugs that can flip such switches to kill cancer cells is underway in Melbourne and in drug companies around the world. “In time, important cancer therapies may be developed from the WEHI team’s insight and the proof provided by the Australian Synchrotron,” Mr Brumby said. Innovation Minister Gavin Jennings congratulated the WEHI team on its ground-breaking insight. “The WEHI team had the theory, and the Australian Synchrotron enabled them to actually see the molecules and learn how they work,” said Mr Jennings. “This is a tremendous example of what Victoria’s world-class scientists can achieve using Victoria’s world class scientific infrastructure. “It’s an illustration of how Victoria’s commitment to, and investment in, infrastructure can enable breakthroughs which ultimately may help millions of cancer sufferers in Victoria and around the world.” WEHI’s Dr Mark Kvansakul said finding the molecular switch and establishing how to flip it on or off was an essential step in discovering new drugs and therapies for diseases like cancer. “The visualised molecular switch regulates the normal and healthy process of cell death, whereby cells that are damaged or no longer needed are induced to self-destruct,” Dr Kvansakul said. “Unfortunately, the cell death switch can be hijacked in a virus-infected cell or a cancer cell, preventing the rogue cell from dying on cue. “The dangerous cells can then accumulate within the body and cause a disease such as cancer.” Mr Jennings said the $207 million Australian Synchrotron is a source of powerful light that scientists can use to assess the structure of materials at the minute molecular level. “Thy Synchrotron will help foster innovation in the life sciences and physical technologies,” Mr Jennings said. “As we have seen today, it will help scientists produce better medical images, develop new medicines and continue to be at the forefront of medical research. “The Synchrotron will also allow more accurate forensic examinations, produce more powerful computer chips, find new ways to extract metal from ores, make stronger building materials and monitor pollution.” The Victorian Government contributed $157.2 million to fully fund the cost of the Synchrotron machine and building, and has invested more than $265 million in cancer research programs and infrastructure supporting cancer research since 2000.