Content by National Nine News – Sydney Bureau – Gabriella Rogers
— Nine News Sydney (@9NewsSyd) June 13, 2019
An Australian leukaemia researcher is in the battle of his life to stop his young daughter from succumbing to an incurable form of brain cancer.
Dr Matt Dun has spent most of his professional life finding new treatments for leukaemia.
But, when his daughter Josie was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), in February last year, the poor prognosis prompted him into action.
“I was mostly shocked by the failure of all interventional strategies to treat the disease. Survival rate of nine months for a child with cancer is quite shocking,” Dr Dun said.
He is a Cancer Institute NSW Fellow and works at the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute.
It was Dr Dun’s wife Phoebe, a general practitioner, who picked up on their daughter’s symptoms.
“My wife was right onto it. She noticed straight away,” he said.
“Josie had become unusually clumsy and stopped wanting to walk.”
Unlike other tumours, DIPG can’t be surgically removed due to its location in the brain stem which is a critical organ that passes on all the signals that control functions such as breathing and heart rate.
At the start, Josie was fortunate to be enrolled in the Zero Childhood Cancer PRISM trial run through the University of NSW.
Doctors performed a risky biopsy but an analysis of the tumour gave them important clues, especially after Josie didn’t respond well to the standard treatment which is radiation.
The PRISM trial also prescribed different therapies which stabilised Josie’s condition but that also started to fail after four months.
“And then it was up to us to try and figure out what we should do next,” Dr Dun said.
Fortunately, he had been working feverishly growing tumour cells in his own lab.
He liaised with Stanford University in the United States and imported up to a dozen biopsied samples.
He has a team of three staff who are using the tumour samples to test new treatments including a drug called GDC-0084 which had not been used in DIPG before.
He saw potential because it targets one of the drivers of his daughter’s tumour.
“When we found out her tumour was very strongly influenced by one particular pathway we went about identifying drugs that can tackle that pathway,” he said.
Despite responding to the treatment, unfortunately, the cancer never lets up.
“The drug doesn’t so much kill tumour cells, it kind of stops them from growing so we knew we had to combine that with other drugs to really start to kill off the tumour,” he said.
It has now been sixteen months since Josie’s diagnosis.
“If there is a cure out there to be found, it will be Matt,” his mentor Professor Brett Nixon said.
“I’ve never met someone with as much passion and drive as Matt.”
That drive is also needed to manage the fundraising to maintain the research.
“It’s not a cheap endeavour by any means and most of it is self-funded through philanthropic support and initiatives that Matt has actually put in place himself,” Professor Nixon said.
Matt says it’s a challenge, but he’s making sure his resolve to make a difference doesn’t impact on the time they have together.
“I don’t ever sacrifice time with Josephine for work, I do most of my work when she goes to sleep,” he said.
“At the moment she’s quite stable and quite happy,” Dr Dun said. “And we’re enjoying family time, the five of us.
“We’re trying to buy time, we’re trying to buy time until someone can come up with something that’s going to do better than what we can do.”
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019