Meet 5 cancer researchers

Meet six intrepid scientists motivated by the knowledge that the more we know about cancer, the more lives we can save.

Scientists from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science investigate the molecular basis of cancer alongside researchers affiliated with our School of Cancer Medicine (embedded within the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute). Together, we make discoveries that help people live better with cancer; working to defeat this disease with world-class treatments and therapeutic programs.

From DNA visualisation to life-changing therapies, La Trobe researchers work at the cutting-edge of science to fight cancer.

Zeroing in on cancer’s origins

Dr Donna Whelan, a biophysicist based at La Trobe Bendigo

My lab aims to visualise and understand the very first molecular-level events inside our cells that trigger cancer. Invariably, this involves damage to our DNA – often with both sides of the double helix broken apart – that our cells fail to repair correctly. This results in mutations that go on to create a cascade of biological mistakes that lead to one of the most complicated and damaging diseases out there.

Interestingly, DNA damage also underlies a lot of neurodegenerative, immune, and genetic diseases as well. In my lab we built a specialised microscope that allows us to zoom-in on cells and look at the individual DNA molecules, the damage that occurs, and how our cells try (but sometimes fail) to repair it.

Understanding how and why DNA damage is sometimes repaired incorrectly helps us develop better ways to prevent cancer, as well as improve treatment approaches for the many cancers that hijack DNA damage and repair pathways.

Donna Whelan, LIMS scientist

What inspired you to choose to pursue this field of research?

I have always loved the problem-solving and interdisciplinary collaborative aspects of scientific research. My PhD was in chemistry and featured a lot of engineering and physics which taught me how to build microscopes and harness the interactions between matter and light. After my PhD I worked in a molecular pharmacology lab and really started to appreciate a lot of human biology and how diseases work.

When I had the chance to choose the research my new lab would focus on, I naturally gravitated towards pulling apart the simplest aspects of complex diseases. Peering in at the basic molecular events that trigger cancer means I get to work with all sorts of scientists every day, problem solving and collaborating with physicists, chemists, biologists, and medical doctors.

Working together, we’re strongly motivated in the knowledge that our research has real world impact for the many people that have, or will, suffer from cancer and other DNA damage diseases.

Where do you hope to see this research in 10-20 years’ time?

I believe that in ten or twenty years my research will have provided a clearer view of the proteins and steps involved in DNA damage repair and that this information will be used to improve cancer preventative and treatment approaches. I don’t think my lab can provide all the answers — instead I see the research we do as generating important pieces of the overall puzzle of understanding DNA damage and improving human health.

Preventing cancer before it becomes malign

Professor Patrick Humbert, University Theme Leader for Understanding and Preventing Disease and LIMS researcher

I’m interested in how cancer begins — in particular the very first alterations in normal tissue that signal that a cell is not normal anymore. These early cancerous changes involve specific alterations in the molecules within a cell that in turn lead to increased number of cells and the disorganisation of a tissue, both key characteristics of tumours.

We’re developing therapeutic interventions to prevent cancer at the earliest stage by ‘re-organising’ these early pre-cancerous cells back to their original normal tissue organisation. This provides a clean slate so that pre-cancer doesn’t have the chance to progress to proper cancer. We use a number of different techniques to design new preventative approaches to cancer, such as:

Growing mini human organs in 3-dimensional cultures to understand the effects of the human genes that control the organisation of tissues and how they are involved in the initiation of cancer;

Using animal models of cancer (including the vinegar fly – which carry similar cancer genes to humans) where we can rapidly screen thousands of drugs to determine whether the disorganised tumours can be treated or prevented. This allows us to home in on promising candidate drugs which we then validate in our human cancer models;

We’re also working closely with cancer patients, health economists and consumer engagement experts to understand how best to deliver preventative approaches to the general population.

Ultimately even with the best cancer prevention drugs in hand, we need the general public to adopt it wholeheartedly for it to be effective.

Patrick Humbert

What inspired you to choose to pursue this field of research?

Cancer is a disease that touches everyone. Even if we haven’t been impacted directly by it, we know someone that has had cancer or dealing with it right now. Although scientists and medical practitioners are making good progress with treatment options, many current treatments can be physically demanding, even at times traumatic, and can lead to lifelong additional health issues.

Preventative treatments aim to bypass all of this from the start with the aim to extend lifespan in a manner that allows people to age in a healthy and enjoyable way.

The potential to be able to help so many people live a better life is extremely inspirational.

The complex nature of cancer in all of its different forms, also provides an incredible intellectual challenge. I am very grateful to be able to work on such an important problem with talented colleagues and collaborators here at La Trobe University, around Australia and more widely internationally. It is a big team effort.

Where do you hope to see this research in 10-20 years’ time?

Cancer prevention is still a very difficult area to do research in. It can take a long time to test whether a preventative approach works, and people and governments that focus on quick results do not always have the patience to invest time and funding into this important area of research. With cancer in the next 10-20 years becoming a disease that people will be able to live with, cancer prevention approaches will become extremely important to make sure that people can age in a better and healthier way.

To date, most cancer research has been focussed on understanding the biology and treatment of late stage cancer. Over the next decade, we need to develop a much better knowledge of how cancer begins, and how we can detect it and prevent it at the earliest stage.

Discovering better treatments for bone cancer

Associate Professor Christine Hawkins, offering hope to young patients and their families

Cancers arise when cells within our bodies acquire new properties. They divide more frequently, survive stresses that would kill normal cells, gain the ability to move within and between organs, and withstand attack by our immune system. Over the last few decades, tremendous improvements have been made in treatment of some types of cancer. Unfortunately, however, other types of cancer tend not to respond to currently available treatments. In particular, existing therapies – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – are often unable to cure patients whose cancers have spread to other parts of the body.

My research team focuses on identifying more effective treatments for osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that usually afflicts teenagers. Current treatments fail to cure about a third of these patients. Sadly, most osteosarcoma patients whose cancers have spread from a bone to their lungs only survive for a few years after their diagnosis. Numerous clinical trials have tested various combinations of chemotherapy drugs against osteosarcoma, but the results have been disappointing – survival rates haven’t budged in decades. In recent years, some new anti-cancer drugs have been created that kill cancer cells via distinct mechanisms than those triggered by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Our data suggest that one of these novel classes of drugs may be effective against osteosarcoma, particularly when it has spread to the lungs.

We’re excited by the possibility that these drugs may enable more osteosarcoma patients to survive their cancer.

Chris Hawkins, LIMS scientist

What inspired you to choose to pursue this field of research?

Initially I was drawn to biomedical research because I was curious about how our cells and bodies work, and the causes of diseases. I found cancer particular intriguing as it is caused by altered versions of our own cells. I am fascinated by the idea that we could develop cancer treatments by understanding the molecular differences between normal and cancerous cells.

A cancer diagnosis is always traumatic, but when a young person develops cancer, especially a type that can be lethal, it’s particularly devastating for the individual and their family and friends. That’s why I’m focusing my lab’s research on improving treatments for osteosarcoma patients, many of whom are adolescents. Decades of research into the molecular basis of cancer is starting to pay off – drugs are now available that target the proteins that are altered in cancerous cells. Our work to find better therapies for osteosarcoma builds on that knowledge.

Where do you hope to see this research in 10-20 years’ time?

Traditional treatments are often powerless to cure patients whose cancerous cells acquire the ability to spread from their site of origin, like the bone, and grow in other parts of the body, like the lungs. I hope that new, molecularly targeted treatments will be more effective against this most lethal manifestation of cancer. More effective therapies could grant adolescents diagnosed with osteosarcoma many decades of extra life.

Searching for cancer’s kryptonite

Associate Professor Doug Fairlie and Dr Erinna Lee, Cell Death and Survival specialists

We’re interested in understanding a basic feature of all cancer cells — their ability to resist dying under circumstances that would otherwise kill a normal cell. This ‘superpower’ of cancer cells makes them particularly difficult to eliminate and often makes them resistant to treatment. This is also perhaps one of the reasons there is still no universal ‘cure’ for cancer.

Our research focuses on the specific proteins that gives a cell this power to survive, even when it becomes damaged in a way that becomes dangerous to us. We try to identify ways in which we can block the activity of these ‘survival’ proteins and force the cancer cells into dying as they should.

Erinna Lee & Doug Fairlie, LIMS scientists

What inspired you to choose to pursue this field of research?

Cancer will inevitably affect all of us – either directly or through our friends and family suffering from it. As such, trying to understand what causes cancer, and how we can better treat it, can potentially have a huge impact.

Cancer is an extremely clever disease that is seemingly capable of adapting and evading whatever we throw at it.

There are so many aspects underlying the causes of cancer that need to be considered, so it poses an incredible intellectual challenge. This makes it interesting to study and gives us great satisfaction when we make small inroads towards defeating it. Seeing the improvements already made in cancer therapy as a result of research motivates us.

Where do you hope to see this research in 10-20 years’ time?

Our long-term goal is always around discovering new treatment options for patients. The particular drugs we study are showing promise in a small number of cancer types, but we would like to see our research enable them to eventually be applied more widely so that we can have a greater impact in a broader range of tumour types and thereby help many more people suffering from this disease.

More information?

For more information on the research we do, take a look at La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science