Professor Mark Molloy is the inaugural Lawrence Penn Chair of Bowel Cancer Research, located at the Kolling Institute, on the Royal North Shore Hospital Campus.
Professor Molloy is a biochemist and has developed his expertise in the science of 'proteomics'. He is internationally recognised as an expert in the application of mass spectrometry in biomedical research. Professor Molloy’s focus areas are in translational cancer research, biomarker studies and cell signalling.
A major theme of Professor Molloy’s research has been to use mass spectrometry to conduct quantitative proteomic analyses of biospecimens. He has used this approach for the molecular characterisation of colon, thyroid and pancreatic cancers, melanomas and some lung cancers. The data has been used to identify prognostic and predictive protein biomarkers.
More recently, Professor Molloy has opened a new research direction to use mass spectrometry for pharmacokinetic monitoring of cancer drug levels in patients and to explore analysis from dried blood spots. Many of these collaborations have been with clinicians on the RNSH campus. This new role will enable him to expand these interactions and focus a major effort towards molecular analysis of bowel cancer.
Professor Molloy completed his PhD in proteomic sciences at Macquarie University in 2000 under the supervision of Keith Williams, co-inventor of the term "proteomics" before conducting post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, USA. He then worked in the US at Pfizer Inc for four years applying biomarker research to support new drug development.
Professor Molloy returned to Australia to take up a National Health and Medical Research Council career development award fellowship on colorectal cancer biomarker proteins in collaboration with Professor Stephen Clarke, before becoming Director of APAF.
Professor Molloy’s leadership and international standing in the application of proteomics is evidenced by outstanding grant success (career total $42.9M), publications (>150), Scopus citations (>4900) and HDR student completions (14). He is a Chief Investigator of the Sydney Vital Translational Cancer Research Centre.
The commencement of Professor Molloy as the Lawrence Penn Chair of Bowel Cancer Research is the culmination of many years of hard work by all concerned and marks the beginning of many more years of valuable, translatable research. The establishment of the Chair at the University of Sydney provides a unique opportunity to build a research team committed to beating bowel cancer, a disease which is projected to claim the lives of 33,964 Australians in the next seven years.
Professor Molloy will be applying molecular technologies to discover what causes a polyp to become cancerous and what drives the spread of disease.
Molecular technologies include genomics (the study of all the genes), proteomics (the study of all the proteins), and metabolomics (the study of all the metabolites).
To understand the biology underlying cancer, scientists have traditionally studied cancer genes – the genome. That analysis has shown that bowel cancers are not uniform and can be subdivided into at least four types, based on molecular features they possess.
However, a blind spot in research has been the study of all the proteins – the proteome – which is the molecular machinery of the cell.
Cancer proteomics is an important new frontier in cancer research. It uses mass spectrometry, a powerful analytical technique for identifying proteins and measuring the quantity of each type of protein that is present.
"We need to look at the things that the genes are producing, and that's what proteomics is about," explained Professor Molloy.
"By studying how protein structure and function change when diseases such as cancer are present, we are hoping to identify which specific proteins play a role in bowel cancer," Professor Molloy added.
Knowing which proteins are present in bowel cancer is essential for developing new cancer treatments and for using existing treatments as efficiently as possible because most of the drugs used to treat diseases such as cancer interact with proteins.
“There is no doubt that technology is driving a big revolution in clinical care,” Professor Molloy said.
One example of this technological transformation is the use of mass spectrometers – sophisticated weighing devices that allow researchers to determine the molecular make-up of various substances.
With two new mass spectrometers installed at the Kolling Institute, Professor Molloy and his team will analyse the molecular features of proteins and metabolites in individual tumours, to tailor treatment pathways according to the needs of each patient.
"When combined with genomic analysis, this gives us a more complete molecular picture of bowel cancer, which is essential to better understand prevention and treatment strategies," Professor Molloy said.
“Currently those decisions are based on BMI [body mass index],” said Professor Molloy.
“But people metabolise these drugs differently based on genetics … By applying molecular analysis techniques to blood samples, the oncologist could potentially adjust the medication levels up or down in a more precise and personalised way.”
“Today, these multidisciplinary teams discuss imaging, surgery, approaches to chemotherapy and so on,” he said.
“I’d like to see clinicians also asking how molecular analysis could help add to the fuller picture.”
The Chair of Bowel Cancer at the University of Sydney is named after Mr Lawrence Penn, one of Australia’s oldest bowel cancer survivors. Passionate aviator, former RAAF and Qantas pilot, Lawrence Penn was one of approximately 7,000 Australians diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1985.
At the time, the five-year relative survival rate was just 47 percent and life expectancy for newly diagnosed bowel cancer patients with advanced disease was just five months. With improvements in early detection, advances in surgery and effective adjuvant chemotherapy to prevent cancer recurrence, an increasing number of advanced bowel cancer survivors are living longer.
Unfortunately, while mortality rates are remaining stable, and in some age-groups declining, incidence is forecast to rise to 20,000 new cases per year by 2020. For those who detect the disease early like Mr Penn, 90 percent of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated.
“I feel very honoured to think my name is going to be associated with such important research,” Mr Penn said.
Because of his family’s experience with bowel cancer, Lawrence Penn’s son Richard and wife Heather, became active supporters of Bowel Cancer Australia’s work.
Mr Richard Penn, Chairman of the Penn Foundation, was invited by the Board to become Patron of Bowel Cancer Australia in 2006. One year later, The Penn Foundation helped launch a fundraising appeal to establish Australia’s first Chair of Bowel Cancer Research, with a $1million funding commitment.
“My main motivation for getting this chair was so as many people as possible can have more time with their loved ones,” Richard said.