Institute harnesses expertise for cancer studies

Posted on March 5, 2013

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Researchers at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) are working to develop a blood test for the early detection of colorectal cancer, a high-risk disease for people over the age of 50, and one of the most prevalent cancers in the western world.

Biochemist Dr Suresh Mathivanan heads a laboratory focused on finding new methods for early detection of cancer.

He says when a patient is diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the disease has often already spread to other parts of the body, lowering their chances of survival.

Apart from colonoscopies and a faecal test for traces of blood in stools, which means a cancer is already active, there is currently no test that doctors can use routinely to detect the very early stages of the disease.

Dr Mathivanan: passion for cancer research

Dr Mathivanan: passion for cancer research

Detailed comparison of blood samples

Dr Mathivanan is a NH&MRC Peter Doherty Fellow at LIMS. He says the best way to cure cancer is to detect the disease early, before it spreads.

‘We are looking for differences in substances including proteins that are present in the blood samples of colorectal cancer patients and comparing them with what we find in healthy individuals.

‘By developing new ways for the early detection of colorectal cancer, the patient survival rates can be improved and the human and financial burden this disease places on our community can be significantly reduced,’ he says.

For his doctoral research Dr Mathivanan spent three years at Johns Hopkins University in the US working closely with many leading scientists in his field.

‘During this time I developed a strong passion for cancer research and decided to pursue full-time post-doctoral research work at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Melbourne.’

He says he has always had a burning desire to start his own independent cancer research laboratory and make a valuable contribution to the battle against cancer.

Community working space in the new LIMS building for combined intellectual endeavour

Community working space in the new LIMS building for combined intellectual endeavour

Ideal environment for new ideas

‘However, there are not too many opportunities to start an independent research group in Australia, especially for early career researchers.

‘Then I heard about the vision of LIMS at La Trobe to support early career researchers and promote the next generation of scientists – and its admirable aim of becoming one of the premier institutes in Australia for cutting-edge research.’

With support from LIMS Executive Director Professor Nick Hoogenraad and Head of Biochemistry, Professor Mike Ryan, Dr Mathivanan got the opportunity to start his own research group in 2011, and was appointed to the post of La Trobe’s first LIMS Research Fellow.

He says many universities have research programs in individual departments, usually spread across different buildings.

‘The best part of LIMS – apart from new infrastructure and diverse scientific expertise in a state-of-the-art teaching and research space  – is that it houses multiple disciplines under the one roof.

‘Chemists, cell biologists, biochemists, computational biologists, geneticists and pharmacologists all work together here in a combined intellectual environment.

‘Hence the building itself creates ample opportunities for scientists from heterogeneous research backgrounds to meet more often. This encourages new ways to solve major health problems through the use of multi-disciplinary teams.’ – Dian Lipiarski,  Ernest Raetz

More on the opening of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science: New $100m centre boosts research into global scientific challenges – and benefits for regional students; Heredity – it’s not all in your DNAWorld-leading scientist joins LIMS