US Defense Dept backs Aussie upper gastrointestinal cancer research

By Rob Clancy, staff writer

If an army marches on its stomach, as the old saying goes, then the US Department of Defense (DoD) is investing wisely in Australian upper gastrointestinal cancer research.

Professor Brendan Jenkins receives funding from the US Defense Department to work on upper gastrointestinal cancer research.
Professor Brendan Jenkins

Researchers from Melbourne’s Hudson Institute of Medical Research have received two grants from the US DoD totalling approximately $AUD 2 million, to research the upper gastrointestinal cancers, stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer.

In both projects, researchers are now aiming to establish how risk factors interact with genes of the immune system in certain individuals to cause the upper gastrointestinal cancers, stomach and pancreatic cancer.

At a glance

  • Stomach and pancreatic cancers, are among the most common and lethal cancers
  • Both are caused by chronic inflammation caused by the immune system
  • US military veterans have higher than average incidence of both these cancers
  • Increased knowledge of these upper gastrointestinal cancers should lead to advances in understanding of all cancers.

Upper gastrointestinal cancers among the deadliest

Lead researcher, Professor Brendan Jenkins, says it’s not the first time Hudson Institute has received funding for research into these upper gastrointestinal cancers, which are among the most common and deadly cancers in the world.

“The DoD has identified stomach cancer as a high risk for military veterans, particularly those of African-American, Hispanic and Asian ethnicities, and the five-year survival rate for stomach cancer is still less than 30 per cent,” said Prof Jenkins.

“The research being done here provides a golden opportunity to improve that situation – meaning a better life for military veterans and lower health care costs for the US government.

“It’s a similar story for pancreatic cancer, with a five-year survival rate of just 9-10 per cent, largely due to late detection and limited efficacy of chemotherapy, so we’re also focussing on that disease.” he said.

VIEW VIDEO | Professor Brendan Jenkins discusses his latest cancer research and the funding from the US Department of Defense that makes it possible.

Gut-derived bacteria promotes upper gastrointestinal cancers tumour growth

“We know that the most common type of pancreatic cancer contains gut-derived bacteria that promote tumour growth and can cause resistance to chemotherapy; what we need to establish is how that process works.”

Identifying this process is the first major step towards designing new pancreatic cancer treatments and cures.

With stomach cancer, researchers know that US military veterans have higher exposure to risk factors such as infection with the gastric bacteria H. pylori, as well as exposure to biomass, tobacco smoke and ionizing radiation, plus excessive alcohol consumption.

Taken together, these two upper gastrointestinal cancer projects aim to advance understanding of all cancers, not just those affecting the stomach and pancreas, and hopefully lead to faster diagnosis and better treatment.


  • Upper gastrointestinal cancer is a group of cancers that affect the upper digestive system.

  • The upper digestive system includes the pancreas, liver, stomach, bile ducts and oesophagus. Each of organs in the digestive systems contributes to the digestion, processing nutrients, regulating blood sugar and filtering waste before passing through to the lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • In Australia, a 2021 study reported a significant increase in the incidence of young-onset (18–50 years) gastrointestinal (oesophageal, stomach, colon and rectum, and pancreas) adenocarcinomas over the last three decades.


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