The University of Newcastle, Australia

New is bringing a sea change to the way we treat pancreatic cancer. It all began with the simple sea sponge, and the perseverance of Associate Professor Chris Scarlett from the School of Environmental and Life Sciences.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in Western societies. Nothing, apart from surgery in a small proportion of individuals, gives any hope of cure,” explains Chris.

The five-year survival rate is very low—just 7%. And unfortunately, this survival rate has been stagnant since the 1970s. The cancer cells’ rapid proliferation through the bloodstream and ability to survive at a microscopic level in other organs makes molecular and cell biology studies difficult.

With so few options for such a poor prognosis, Chris and his team were inspired to look in novel places for potential treatments. Specifically, the ocean floor, and biological compounds found in sea sponges. Why sea sponges? As it turns out, early cancer therapies were derived from a certain type of sea sponge. With thousands of species of sea sponge in the ocean, there’s a good chance one of them could unlock the key to a new therapeutic treatment. And with so few treatment options available to pancreatic cancer patients that was a chance Chris was willing to take.

Chris’s work has taken him from the familiar shores of the Central Coast to Tasmania and the Bass Strait. He has found himself riding on ocean trawlers and salvaging hundreds of sea sponges, of all colors, shapes and sizes, from their nets. With his network of colleagues at the University of Newcastle and all over Australia, Chris searches for new and promising biological compounds.

Currently, Chris is working with a team of PhD students on an exciting new breakthrough: the discovery of a protein associated with the aggressive spread of pancreatic cancers. By learning more about it, scientists may be able to more effectively treat patients suffering from pancreatic cancer.

There is real potential that the targeting of this mechanism will improve outcomes for patients with this aggressive sub-type of pancreatic cancer.”

Progress like this, and the promise it holds for patients around the world, are why Chris is so passionate about his work.

Knowing that what we do has the potential to better somebody’s life gets me out of bed each morning, and I believe that in cancer research you can make real progress when you don’t lose sight of the big picture.”

Associate Professor Chris Scarlett

Associate Professor Chris Scarlett

Associate Professor in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences

I believe that in cancer research you can make real progress when you don’t lose sight of the big picture.

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