HSA Biobank series: Biobank supports new cancer discoveries

23 October 2013
Image of RNAs under a microscope

“If you really want to do medical science as a molecular biologist, which is what we are, then you need this kind of bridge – it’s essential.” So says University of Technology Sydney (“UTS”) researcher, Associate Professor Gyorgy Hutvagner of having access to the Health Services Alliance (HSA) Biobank, a tissue and plasma facility at the Lowy Biorepository at UNSW.

Professor Hutvagner and his collaborator, Dr Nham Tran, comprise one of the first research teams outside UNSW to access tissue from the HSA Biobank, which provides tissue samples of multiple cancer types to researchers working anywhere in Australia. The UTS research team are seeking access to a series of head and neck, lung and prostate cancer tissue samples in order to further their research into the identification of novel biomarkers present in tissue and plasma that point to the presence and stage of a range of cancer types.

“The idea is that these cancers actually secrete these RNAs into the blood stream, so we are seeking methods to determine the presence of these small RNAs. Once they’re elevated at an early stage, that is an indicator that patient might have cancer,” Tran says.

Four years ago, Hutvagner’s lab identified a new species of small RNA that is elevated in highly proliferative cells, making it an excellent prospect for indicating the presence of all types of cancer. He and Tran are now trying to narrow down their biomarker samples to determine two or three biomarkers with high level efficiency and specificity. To do this, they need access to up to 500 samples of head and neck, lung and prostate cancers, a task that would be virtually impossible without biobanking support.

TCRN: Dr Nham Tran

As well as providing tissue samples, Tran says that the TCRN team plays an integral role in helping foster relationships between researchers and clinicians. Building these professional networks is crucial for researchers if they want to progress their work into a clinical phase, and for acquiring funding, which can be hard to come by without a clinical partner. “Collecting that many samples and finding enough patients willing to donate their tissue to research would take an extremely long time,” says Tran.

“I think the wonderful thing about TCRN is that they bridge the gap between researchers and clinicians,” Tran says.

The research is already showing significant promise in identifying both the presence of different cancer types, how far the cancer has progressed, and individual patient prognosis. The next step will be to understand how the same biomarkers can pre-empt the likelihood of cancer before the first signs are visible. 



TCRN: Research by Associate Professor Gyorgy Hutvagner and collaborator, Dr Nham Tran. Photo credit Samantha Khoury, PhD student.


Research by Associate Professor Gyorgy Hutvagner and collaborator, Dr Nham Tran. Photo credit Samantha Khoury, PhD student (TCRN PhD scholarship top-up awardee)

Further Information:

Tran Lab ncRNA Cancer Laboratory; non coding RNA Cancer Lab - Nham Tran PhD, Lecturer