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

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

Seven UNSW graduates have received the prestigious and highly competitive awards, which are offered on two tiers. Career Development Fellowships are awarded to mid-career researchers who demonstrate the potential to conduct research of major significance for cancer outcomes. Early Career Fellowships are designed to encourage researchers to build on their research capabilities 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 questioning existing knowledge about cancer. We applaud these emerging researchers who are destined to become leading academics in Australia and beyond.”

Career Development Scholarships

dr. Frances Byrne at UNSW Science’s School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences has been awarded $150,000 for “Investigating the Potential of a Novel Mitochondrial Decoupler 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 beyond six months. The research of Dr. Byrne aims to address this unmet need by testing a new drug that addresses mitochondrial metabolism in mouse models of this disease. In the long term, the success of this study could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of liver cancer and ultimately improve the survival rates of patients with advanced disease.

dr. Antoine de Weck at UNSW’s Children’s Cancer Institute has received $570,660 for “Identification of Novel Drug Targets for Pediatric Oncology.”

There are no targeted drug therapies for virtually all of the most common childhood cancers, and where targeted therapies exist, they are usually developed for adult cancers. The mechanisms that cause cancer in children and adults are rarely the same, leaving more harmful chemotherapeutics the only option for many children. A major challenge is the fundamental lack of a pediatric-specific pipeline to lead the discovery of pediatric drug targets to the development of new investigational drugs. This is the challenge that Dr. de Weck’s research will face.

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 the 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 is developing a clinical pathway to ensure cancer survivors receive much-needed treatment for fear of cancer recurrence, regardless of their cultural background, spoken language or where they live. Once the trajectory has been developed, the team will test its effectiveness, along with strategies to support implementation in NSW and ultimately Australia. By systematically and equitably addressing the fear of cancer recurrence, they hope to reduce the significant burden this fear places on cancer survivors, their loved ones and the health system at large.

Early Careers Scholarships

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 “personalized drug approaches for antifibrotic targeting and Gemcitabine/Abraxane treatment in pancreatic cancer led by intravital (in vivo) imaging’.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, with a five-year survival rate of just 9 percent and more than 90 percent of patients die within a year of diagnosis. One of the reasons the prognosis is so poor is because the tissue surrounding the pancreatic tumor becomes stiff and fibrotic. dr. Pereira’s research focuses on this stiff, fibrotic tissue surrounding the tumors to improve the efficacy of chemotherapy. She will use rare and contemporary pancreatic cancer tissues collected directly from patients during surgery and will visualize improvements in chemotherapy response in these tissues using advanced imaging techniques.

Doctor Benjamin Daniels, Research Fellow in the Medicines Policy Research Unit of UNSW Medicine & Health’s Center for Big Data Research in Health, has received $345,000 for ‘Harnessing big data for real-world evidence generation: Impact of multi-medicine use on colon cancer treatment and survival outcomes’ ‘.

Patients with comorbidities and complex medical profiles present a challenge during primary cancer treatment and survival. The research of Dr. Daniels uses NSW public health data, innovative methodology and expert collaboration to generate robust evidence about safety and survival outcomes for colon cancer patients and survivors taking multiple drugs 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 personalized approach to disconnecting the tumor-stroma feedback loop using of the phase II-ready FAK inhibitor, AMP945, in combination with standard of care chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer based on Merlin status’.

In addition to reducing the effectiveness of treatment, the pancreatic cancer microenvironment (also known as the stroma) may help promote the spread of cancer. Cancers that spread to other parts of the body are usually much more difficult to treat. FAK is a molecule produced by pancreatic cancer that increases the stiffness of the stroma and helps cancer cells grow, mobilize and metastasize. dr. Murphy will test a new therapy in a preclinical study that will seek to block FAK activity and “prime” tumors to become more susceptible to standard therapies, with the aim of improving patient response to treatment.

Dr Abbas Habibalahic Research Fellow at the ARC Center 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 can affect 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) resembles in appearance a common and benign eye tumor called ‘pterigium’. Currently, eye biopsy is the gold standard diagnostic method for OSSN, which is traumatic to the patient, carries risks, and may not be necessary for patients with pterigium alone. This project aims to develop an imaging-based method for OSSN screening that will allow to reduce – and hopefully eliminate – the need for eye biopsy in cases of suspected OSSN.

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