Early and mid-career researchers recognised with fellowships from Cancer Institute NSW

Medicine, science and biomedical engineering academics receive grants to explore new approaches to cancer treatment.
Belinda Henwood | UNSW Newsroom

Researchers at UNSW Medicine & Health, UNSW Science and the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics at UNSW have been awarded Cancer Institute NSW Research Fellowship grants totalling more than $2.8 million.

Seven UNSW academics have received the prestigious and highly competitive awards, which are offered at two levels. Career Development Fellowships are awarded to mid-career researchers who demonstrate the potential to undertake research that will have major significance to cancer outcomes. Early Career Fellowships aim to encourage researchers to build on their research capability and become leaders of their own research team.

Professor Sven Rogge, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, at UNSW, congratulated the researchers on their fellowships.

“Our researchers are at the forefront of advances in cancer research and are constantly challenging existing knowledge on cancer. We applaud these emerging researchers who are destined to become leading academics in Australia and beyond.”

Career Development Fellowships

Dr Frances Byrne at UNSW Science’s School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences has been awarded $150,000 for ‘Investigating the potential of a new mitochondrial uncoupler for the treatment of liver cancer’.

Liver cancer is the fastest growing cause of cancer-related deaths in Australia. Currently, there are no drug treatments for advanced liver cancer that offer hope for a cure or an extension of survival by more than six months. Dr Byrne’s research aims to address this unmet need by testing a novel drug that targets mitochondrial metabolism in mouse models of this disease. Long term, success of this research could lead to a breakthrough for the treatment of liver cancer and ultimately improve survival rates for patients with advanced disease.

Dr Antoine de Weck at the Children’s Cancer Institute at UNSW has received $570,660 for ‘Identifying novel drug targets for paediatric oncology’.

For virtually all of the most common paediatric cancers, there are no targeted drug therapies and where targeted therapies do exist, they have usually been developed for adult cancers. The mechanisms driving paediatric and adult cancers are rarely the same, leaving more harmful chemotherapies as the only option for many children. A major challenge is the fundamental lack of a paediatric-specific pipeline to take the discovery of paediatric drug targets through to the development of investigational new drugs. This is the challenge Dr de Weck’s research will address.

Dr Ben Smith, Senior Research Fellow at Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research and South West Sydney Clinical Campuses, UNSW Medicine & Health, has received $592,165 for ‘Improving consistency and equity of care for fear of cancer recurrence through an evidence-based, culturally sensitive and implementation-ready clinical pathway’.

Together with a team of consumer and clinical experts, Dr Smith will develop a clinical pathway to ensure that cancer survivors receive much-needed treatment for fear of cancer recurrence, irrespective of their cultural background, language spoken or where they live. Once the pathway is developed, the team will test its effectiveness along with strategies to aid implementation across NSW and ultimately Australia. By systematically and equitably addressing fear of cancer recurrence, they hope to reduce the significant burden this fear places on cancer survivors, their loved ones and the health system more broadly.

Early Career Fellowships

Dr Brooke Pereira, Conjoint Associate Lecturer, St Vincents Clinical School at UNSW Medicine & Health and Research Officer, Invasion and Metastasis Lab, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has received $464,151 for ‘Personalised medicine approaches for anti-fibrotic targeting and Gemcitabine/Abraxane treatment in pancreatic cancer guided by intravital (in vivo) imaging’.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, with a five-year survival rate of only 9 per cent and over 90 per cent of patients dying within one year of diagnosis. One of the reasons the prognosis is so poor is because the tissue surrounding the pancreatic tumour becomes stiff and fibrotic. Dr Pereira’s research involves targeting this stiff, fibrotic tissue around the tumours to improve chemotherapy efficacy. She will use rare and contemporary pancreatic cancer tissues collected directly from patients at surgery and will visualise improvements in chemotherapy response in these tissues using advanced imaging techniques.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, Research Fellow in the Medicines Policy Research Unit at the Centre for Big Data Research in Health at UNSW Medicine & Health, has been awarded $345,000 for ‘Leveraging big data for real-world evidence generation: Impact of multi-medicine use on bowel cancer treatment and survivorship outcomes’.

Patients with comorbidities and complex medicine profiles present challenges during primary cancer treatment and survivorship. Dr Daniels’ research leverages NSW population health data, innovative methodology and expert collaboration to generate robust evidence around the safety and survival outcomes for bowel cancer patients and survivors using multiple medicines for chronic conditions.

Dr Kendelle Murphy, Conjoint Associate Lecturer, St Vincents Clinical School at UNSW Medicine & Health and Research Officer, Invasion and Metastasis Lab, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has received $444,500 for ‘A personalised approach to uncoupling the tumour-stroma feedback loop using the phase II ready FAK inhibitor, AMP945, in combination with standard-of-care chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer guided by Merlin status’.

In addition to reducing the effectiveness of treatment, the pancreatic cancer microenvironment (also known as the stroma) can help promote the spread of cancer. Cancers that metastasise to other sites around the body are typically much harder to treat. FAK is a molecule produced by pancreatic cancer that increases the stiffness of the stroma and helps cancer cells to grow, mobilise and metastasise. Dr Murphy will test a new therapy in a pre-clinical study which will attempt to block FAK activity and ‘prime’ tumours to be more susceptible to standard therapies, with the aim of improving patient responses to treatment.

Dr Abbas Habibalahi Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics at UNSW has received $310,433 for ‘A novel imaging technology for non-invasive diagnostics of ocular surface squamous neoplasia (OSSN)’.

Cancer is able to attack the surface of the eye, especially in countries like Australia with high exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Such cancer (ocular surface squamous neoplasia or OSSN) is similar in appearance to a common and benign eye tumour called ‘pterigium’. Currently, eye biopsy is the gold standard diagnostic method for OSSN which is traumatic for the patient, carries risks and has been potentially unnecessary for patients diagnosed with pterigium only. This project aims to develop an imaging-based method for OSSN screening which will allow to reduce – and hopefully eliminate – the need for eye biopsy in cases of suspected OSSN.