Since its formation in 1967 as the Jenny Leukaemia Trust and merging with the Leo Cancer Foundation in the 1980s, Cure Cancer has served as the catalyst for research. Without early-career researchers, there simply is no research pipeline.
With many of their scientists such as Dr Roger Reddel becoming global leaders in multiple cancer fields, Cure Cancer’s ability to fund over 528 projects has allowed for all types of novel ideas to grow into ground-breaking developments.
However, choosing to specialise in cancer research is by no means easy. Before scientists can even qualify for a career in research, they must complete a Bachelor Degree with Honours as well as a PhD, which alone takes at least seven years. Even once this formal education is complete, job security is hard to come by, and it’s at this point that the battle for funding usually begins.
The Challenges Of Early-career Cancer Research
Melanoma researcher and Cure Cancer recipient, Dr Jessica Duarte says, ‘It is extremely difficult to obtain funding as an early career cancer researcher. After completing a PhD, you are given the monumental task of establishing a career path to become an independent successful researcher. This can only happen if you can secure early-career funding, and the list of competitive achievements needed to do so can be overwhelming. Many young researchers fail to do so and as a result, leave science at times.’
Whilst cancer research is a life-long commitment to improving people’s lives, it is also a career riddled with uncertainty and insecurity. Researchers can spend up to a third of their year applying for highly competitive funding, and with that comes a huge amount of stress – particularly for newly qualified researchers who, by definition, have a limited record of success. Nevertheless, what many of them do have are brilliant, innovative ideas and new approaches to cancer research that may never have been explored before and which challenge the status quo.
Opportunities for early-career cancer researchers to apply for funding in Australia are extremely limited. In today’s research environment, funding is highly competitive as only around 12% of project grant applications to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) are successful. As most of the funding comes from the government via the NHMRC, there is such a limited amount of money available that funding bodies tend to be risk averse.
Most of the money is reserved for researchers with a proven record of success and some research results, making it extremely difficult for newly qualified scientists to get their ideas off the ground. Sadly, this often leads to talented researchers with incredible potential either leaving research altogether or moving overseas where funding is more readily available.
Yet in the past 25 years, the relative survival rate from cancer has improved from 48% to 69% thanks to advances in detection, diagnosis, and treatment because of evidence-based research. This just goes to show truly how important research is.
By exclusively funding early-career researchers less than seven years post PhD or medical degree, Cure Cancer supports newly qualified scientists at a time in their careers when they need it most. This funding enables them to develop and progress their work here on home soil, and potentially go on to do great things.
The Typical Career Path
Once researchers have completed a PhD or medical degree, they are eligible to apply for Cure Cancer funding. Successful grant applicants can request funds for their own salary, the salary of a research assistant, and/or research materials or equipment for a specified project. The grant funding is awarded on the basis of excellence to those who have put forward a novel idea or approach to a problem.
Cure Cancer’s one or two-year grants set these early-career researchers on their way, and the results they obtain help them attract further funding. A few years of early-career funding can help an emerging researcher establish their own lab and set them up for the next stage in their career. Ultimately these researchers aim to move through the ranks and apply for further funding to support them as mid-career researchers before they might go on to become Associate Professors and Professors.
‘It’s very clear that Nobel prizes come from young people doing something, or from those working in different areas who change field and are therefore not completely paralysed by the paradigm that went before,’ says Professor Pamela Russell AM, a six-time Cure Cancer grant recipient. ‘It is these people that come up with new ideas which end up in Nobel prizes, so it is critical that we continue to harness the enormous enthusiasm of young scientists.’
Coming Full Circle
With the knowledge and insight that their researchers have obtained in their fields, Cure Cancer has also developed an exclusive mentoring program, allowing researchers of past and present to work together in shaping the future of cancer research.
Cure Cancer alumni still working in research and current grant recipients interested in being guided by a senior researcher, can participate in the project. With each mentoring pair, efforts are taken to match the general location, have them come from different institutions and work in a different field to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Pairs are then able to work together and discuss research topics.
Professor Clare Scott, former Chair of Cure Cancer’s Research Committee, says, ‘Mentoring enables personalised valuable feedback to reach those who can benefit the most. Early career researchers have so much more to learn than science, and mentoring is one way to gain insights at a critical time.’
Despite the program coming to a temporary halt in 2020 due to COVID-19, many participants have expressed gratitude for the valuable experience:
‘This is a fantastic opportunity Cure Cancer Australia provided us. My mentor is superb! He gave exactly the advice I need and we will meet often in the future. She was very helpful to talk to. She understood some of the pressures I am under with my current supervisor and team. I felt I could talk freely and be completely honest with her. I would like to see her again. This year's been a bit of a whirlwind.’
‘It is very useful to receive comments from a senior researcher from somewhere else in environment and scope. Therefore, the suggestions they provide offer insights from a different light.’
By giving promising early-career researchers a chance and allowing them to collaborate with their predecessors, Cure Cancer are helping to secure the pipeline of Australian researchers for the future.
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