Melbourne is one of the country’s busiest cancer research hubs. Sadly though, Victorian researchers have been forced to slow down and alter their approach to work as a result of ongoing coronavirus restriction guidelines.
Leading Australian research charity Cure Cancer funds a number of Victorian researchers, each of whom have been affected in different ways by the new restrictions.
Dr Jessica Holien
Based at RMIT University, Dr Jessica Holien’ s current Cure Cancer funded research project focuses on improving outcomes for women with mucinous ovarian cancer (MOC). 'It’s an understudied form of the disease and, typically, the outcomes are terrible. My grant is helping me to create a cutting-edge map of what scientists refer to as the proteins, or ‘machinery’ that makes mucinous ovarian cancer cells grow,’ she says. ‘By understanding how this cancer cell production line is formed, and how it differs to the one used by normal cells, I’m aiming to discover new, selective drug targets. Once we biologically confirm that these targets are important, I’ll then use computers to design the drugs.’
With her research being mainly computational, most of Jessica’s work can still go ahead. However, her day-to-day schedule has changed, having to take care of her children at home. ‘My partner is an essential worker, so balancing my work with home-schooling is incredibly challenging. My days are full of meetings and as a result, I’m busier and more stressed than ever before.’
One of Jessica’s worries is that cancer diagnoses will take longer to be discovered for patients as a direct impact of lockdown. ‘There are concerns that we will see a further reduction in GP visits and participation in cancer screening as a result of Covid-19. This will lead to delays in diagnosis, causing a surge of new and more serious cases over the next year.’
‘Reducing my output just isn’t an option. After all, cancer doesn’t stop. I’m worried about what the future holds. With universities and research institutes tightening up on funds, it’s going to be more and more difficult to obtain the appropriate funding required to do the research.’
Jessica’s grant is funded by Cure Cancer through the Cancer Australia Priority-driven Cancer Support Scheme.
Dr Shuai Li
In research supported by Cure Cancer, Dr Shuai Li seeks to understand why and how puberty and menopause can affect the incidence of breast cancer, and which genes can be impacted by the two factors. ‘My project integrates genetic and epigenetic data to find answers, which I hope will provide new evidence about the causes of the disease,’ he says. ‘If I’m successful, it could reveal prevention strategies related to female hormones and potentially pave the way for new treatments.’
Whilst Shuai can conduct his research remotely, the isolation from his Melbourne University colleagues has been a difficult experience. ‘The restrictions have impacted my ability to communicate efficiently with colleagues, work with collaborators and share results with other researchers worldwide. Although I can still talk to others virtually, the ‘new normal’ isn’t as efficient as face-to-face communication.’
‘COVID-19 needs our attention, but we can’t forget that our pre-pandemic health problems, including those related to cancers, are still here and impacting thousands of Australians. What’s worse, these people are facing restricted access to health service and are more likely to have worse outcomes.’
For Shuai, his one request is simple. ‘ Continue supporting cancer research so that we can help our most vulnerable,’ he says. ‘We can’t allow cancer research to be disrupted or paused, particularly as additional efforts and resources are likely to be necessary once the threat of the pandemic has eased. Your support will help us better prepare for the future.’
Shuai’s grant is funded by Cure Cancer and their principal supporter, the Can Too Foundation.
Get involved today and start fundraising for Team Cure Cancer.
Dr Rachel Thijssen
‘‘Cancer is a complex story and I yearn to solve the puzzle,’ says Dr Rachel Thijssen , a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
Her current project aims to provide answers for sufferers of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), a slow-growing form of the blood cancer. ‘The laboratory I work in contributed significantly to the development of venetoclax, an initially effective treatment for CLL patients,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, the treatment eventually stops working in most patients, causing the disease to return.’
Rachel aims to discover why this occurs and then to use this knowledge to design new venetoclax combination therapies to eradicate the cancer. However, lockdown has impacted her ability to continue working on this project. ‘The new restrictions have certainly slowed things down. Currently, the capacity of people at the institute is further reduced and there are time limits imposed on being in the lab. Because of the 1.5m social distance rule, we can only work with a few people at the same time in a certain space. My students’ projects are put on hold because it is almost impossible to give them the appropriate guidance in the lab.’
Another obstacle stemming from the Victorian lockdown has been Rachel’s inability to receive patient samples. ‘My research looks at leukaemia in patients of an older age group and I expect that some patients’ appointments are done over the phone to protect them from possible exposure to Covid-19. Of course, keeping safe must be the priority but having fewer samples could have a knock-on effect on our research.’
‘It’s so important that we keep supporting cancer research, especially in these uncertain times. Although a lot of funding is necessarily being directed towards COVID-19 research, we need to make sure our search for a cure doesn’t stop.’
Rachel’s grant is co-funded with Cure Cancer, Cancer Australia and 50% funded by the Can Too Foundation.
Dr Jessica Duarte
Finding two suspicious moles many years ago unexpectedly led Dr Jessica Duarte into a career in cancer research. She says, ‘Luckily, my moles turned out not to be melanoma and although, I got good news in the end, it dawned on me that most people don’t share my luck. That’s when my dedication to improve melanoma awareness, screening, diagnostics and therapeutics became truly personal.’
True to her word, Jessica is a researcher at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute focused on developing a non-invasive technology to measure the extent of cancer patients’ ‘immune engagement’. ‘Patients who have strong immune engagement respond better to treatments aimed at boosting their immune systems, and so by analysing a drop of blood taken from patients before undergoing immunotherapy, I aim to predict how they will respond.’
Last year, her work with melanoma patients receiving immunotherapy led to promising findings, with hope that these discoveries may be used to treat other types of tumours. ‘This year’s grant is aimed at extending my research to patients receiving immunotherapy who have rare cancers. In the long term this could lead to a personalised medicine approach where all cancer patients, irrespective of cancer type, will have a unique tailored therapeutic plan with a high likelihood of treatment success.’
Despite Jessica’s successes, she’s naturally concerned about the current research landscape. ‘We’re living in unprecedented times, and understandably several funding agencies are redirecting funds towards much needed COVID-19 research. In addition, due to restrictions on social gatherings, major cancer research fundraising events have been cancelled.’
‘For cancer patients, things are tough. The coronavirus could impact their mental health and induce other health problems. Our Cancer Centre and Hospital is currently not allowing visitors on-site, except for palliative care patients. As a result, admitted cancer patients undergoing treatment or procedures may be doing so alone without their support network.’ With many Victorian cancer patients more vulnerable due to lowered immune systems, it’s vital to show support during these difficult times. Jessica says, ‘Initiatives like Cure Cancer’s Give Melbourne a Hug can truly make a difference to patients and provide them with much-needed support.’
To show your support for Victorian cancer patients, take part in ‘Give Melbourne a Hug’ and send a Big Hug Box today.