mRNA Victoria grant for university bioengineers to fast-track brain cancer treatment research

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University of Melbourne biomedical engineer Dr Matt Faria and his team have been awarded a $98,659 grant from mRNA Victoria’s Research Acceleration Fund to progress research on brain cancer treatment.

Drawing on a combination of advanced mathematical modelling and experimental expertise, the team hopes to help medical researchers overcome challenges in targeting that have hindered development of successful treatments for brain cancer.

The project will receive $197,336 in total, with co-contributions from the University of Melbourne and project collaborator, the Children’s Cancer Institute.

The project is one of 16 across Victoria to share in $2.7 million for research into mRNA treatments for a range of diseases and health conditions.

The 12-month research project will be undertaken in partnership with the NSW-based Children’s Cancer Institute and will seek to fast-track the development of effective delivery mechanisms of RNA therapies into the brain for cancer treatment.

Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology Professor Mark Cassidy congratulated the team on their grant success.

“This is important research, with exciting potential for future treatment of patients with brain cancer and indeed other cancers in the body,” said Professor Cassidy.

“It also has immense value to Australian biomedical research and industry, including career opportunities and skills development for the local workforce. Developing a robust framework for the testing of new mRNA-based therapies will supercharge our scientists’ ability to evaluate and clinically-translate new therapies.”

Around 2000 Australians develop brain cancer yearly, with brain and spinal cord tumours being the second most common cancers in children. While the number of people surviving other types of cancers has steadily improved over the past 30 years, the five-year relative survival rate for brain cancer has remained low, at around 22 per cent.

Dr Faria said that messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) has enormous promise for new medical treatments and disease prevention that will be more effective, safer and faster to produce, thanks to biotechnology and molecular medicine advances.

However, scientists have come to understand over the past decade that successfully delivering mRNA to diseased cells is one of the biggest unsolved problems for progressing mRNA therapies.

“Once mRNA reaches the interior of a cell, it can produce protein and temporarily “reprogram” the cell – with effects ranging from making a cancer less malignant, to outright killing it. The world’s first mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna illustrate the promise of mRNA technology, but we are only at the beginning of its potential,” said Dr Faria said.

“mRNA technologies have untapped potential to treat cancers, but they must be protected from degrading and safely delivered to target cells to accomplish this. Achieving this has been a major stumbling block in clinical translation.

“Nano-sized carriers are a promising solution for delivering mRNA therapies to cancer cells, but, to date, no mRNA-based therapy has been approved for cancer, or has been able to successfully pass through the blood brain barrier. This selective membrane prevents passage of potentially harmful materials from the blood to the brain, but in the case of treating brain cancer, it has hampered treatment development.

“Our goal is to use mathematical modelling to fast-track the selection of effective nanocarriers most likely to be able to do this. This could speed up both the time it takes to get to clinical trials and improve the trial success rate. By reducing the failure rate of clinical trials for mRNA therapies, we should be able to fast-track mRNA therapies into the clinic, reduce time and cost for research, government and industry bodies, and get these therapies to patients who will benefit from them in the not-too-distant future.

“Efficient and cost-effective prediction of mRNA therapies would revolutionise the biomedical landscape in Australia, and cement Victoria’s leading position at the forefront of the biomedical research industry.”