Closing in on a new cancer vaccine

Lara Malins is passionate about organic chemistry and is now pursuing a discovery that could prevent and treat the most common type of cancers.

Lara Malins

PhD student Lara Malins

“There are two sides to organic chemistry,” says PhD student Lara Malins. “One part is the biological application – developing molecules because there’s an ultimate purpose to it, something greater. The other side is where organic chemists flex their muscles and say ‘this is a significant molecule and I’m the one who made it’. While the last aspect is impressive, I really admire the scientists who can tie the two together: those who conduct challenging chemistry in the name of the bigger picture. It’s about how you can be helpful to society.”

The bigger picture is clearly in mind for Malins, her supervisor Dr Richard Payne and postdoctoral fellow Dr Brendan Wilkinson as they unite their expertise in the University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry to develop a vaccine for epithelial cancers. Epithelial tissue covers all the body’s organs and lines its cavities, such as the inside of the chest and the abdominal cavity. Cancers affecting epithelial tissue are the most common type, comprising about 85 percent of all cancers.

Lara Malins

At the core of their research is a protein called mucin, a component of the mucus layer which surrounds organs and protects them from outside pathogens. Certain abnormalities in the makeup of mucin are typically associated with epithelial cancers such as colon, breast and lung cancer. Mucin is a glycoprotein, characterised by the long sugar chains attached to it. In cancerous forms the sugar chains are highly truncated, changing the structure of the protein. Thus, the nature of the sugars on the surface of the mucin can indicate whether an epithelial cell has become cancerous.

While scientists have known for some time that mucin sugars are altered in the cancerous forms, Malins’ work uses this knowledge to focus on developing a vaccine treatment. “Our goal has been to take what has already been discovered about these abnormal sugar patterns and give it a therapeutic form. At the moment we can identify abnormal mucin but we can’t yet use that to target cancer cells over normal cells. We’re looking to create a vaccine that could do that,” says Malins.

The group has developed a number of these vaccine-like compounds, searching for ones that trigger a strong immune response. These have been sent off to the Burnett Institute in Melbourne to be tested on mice. “So far we’ve had a good response – the mice have produced a lot of antibodies,” says Malins. But many questions remain. Further testing is required to see if the vaccines have preventative measures, and also whether they have a therapeutic effect on someone already diagnosed with cancer.

Donor spotlight: Driving our discoveries

Lara Malins’ work has been supported by her John A Lamberton scholarship. It gave her some much-needed income to support her research and develop her professional skills and contacts by attending various conferences.

Dr Lamberton completed his Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney in 1946 and went on to have a distinguished career in organic chemistry. The scholarship was made possible by a generous donation from his widow, Dorothy. It provides financial support to postgraduate scholars of exceptional ability whose research advances knowledge in the chemistry of natural products and the chemical understanding of brain function and malfunction.

This story was first published in the Sydney Annual.