Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer research conducted at the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute in Ballarat, has discovered that a subset of immune cells in the bowel can misbehave and release chemical messengers that promote bowel cancer and inhibit other immune cells.

Australia has one of the highest rates of Bowel cancer in the world. It is the third most diagnosed form of cancer in Australia and the second largest killer. Regular screening and early detection are key with a 98% successful rate, when detected early. But new treatments are needed for more advanced disease.  Bowel cancer outcomes in Western Victorian are poor with a 4% higher mortality rate than the Victorian average.

Most Bowel cancers start as benign, non-threatening growths – called polyps – on the wall or lining of the bowel.

Our researchers have discovered that immune cells in the walls of the bowel can misbehave and release chemical messengers that promote Bowel cancer. The cells (called ‘MAIT’ cells) are typically helpful for fighting normal bacterial infections in the gut but the Ballarat team found that long term stimulation caused the immune cells to release a chemical message. This message triggering the growth and spread of the cancer, while suppressing nearby anti-cancer immune responses.

The research has been conducted as part of the Institutes collaborative program with researchers from the University of Melbourne. The breakthrough has been recognised as an outstanding observation in international journal, Immunology & Cell Biology.

The team has received a grant in 2022 for its colorectal cancer (CRC) project from The Harry Secomb Foundation.
This funding facilitates the project “Equipping the immune system to fight colorectal cancer”.
CRC is a cancer of the barrier that lines the large intestine. This cancer compromises this protective barrier, allowing the faecal microbes within the bowel to interact with the underlying tissue. The immune system would typically fight these microbes, causing pain and fever within patients. However this cancer appears to suppress this immune response, and patients are largely asymptomatic. This CRC immune suppression may also allow the tumour to evade the immune system. Recent advances in the treatment of other cancers harness the immune system to fight tumours; however, these treatments are ineffective in treating CRC due to the immune suppression within these tumours. Targeting the immune suppression produced by CRC cells may enable the successful treatment of CRC with immunotherapeutic agents.
We aim to produce a therapy that will allow the immune system to fight CRC, creating better prognostic outcomes for patients.



Group Leaders
  • Professor George Kannourakis
  • Dr Jason Kelly
PhD Candidates
  • Revati Sharma