The hunt for shapeshifting cancer cells

For a long time, doctors and patients have dreamed of precision oncology, a process that allows specific, effective treatments for individual tumours.

In the past, the complex nature of tumours has made this impossible.

“Within a tumour, there are many different cell populations, each doing different things and behaving in different ways. Most cells will be killed by chemotherapy, but some are not,” says Associate Professor Frederic Hollande of The University of Melbourne.

“Cell plasticity is the ability of cancer cells to change and regrow after treatment, and we are investigating the influence of genetics and the environment on this process.”

He is collaborating with Professor Alain Puisieux, Director of the Cancer Research Centre of Lyon (Université de Lyon), to understand these processes, especially in cells that have migrated away from their original site. This knowledge will enable treatments to be tailored to attack specific tumours.

Different cancer cells respond differently to treatment. Credit: Frederic Hollande

The French-Australian collaboration, which gave birth to the first joint research lab between the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and Australia, complements the skills and strengths of each laboratory and Frederic believes international collaborations like this one are vital for research.

“It makes us more efficient, but also means that we can share our expertise and goals and ultimately share the benefits across both countries,” Frederic says.

“Our knowledge of bowel and pancreatic cancer is being applied to melanoma and breast cancer in Lyon. We are certain that this will broaden the spectrum of treatment and make our results more generalisable across patient populations.”

Banner image: Frederic Hollande looking at liver metastasis samples. Credit: University of Melbourne Centre for Cancer Research / Peter Casamento