Tell us about what you study at the ONJCRI.
My lab group is interested in looking at how tumours interact with the immune system and we are currently focusing on melanoma (cancer of the skin mainly caused by UV light). We know that these tumours can be recognised by the immune system, but they have a way of blocking this recognition and subsequent destruction by the immune system.
There are a couple of drugs that have been out there for several years now that are able to enhance the immune system’s ability to recognise and destroy the tumour, but the tumour is obviously always trying to prevent this through various mechanisms, and so it’s more or less a constant battle between them. We are trying to understand exactly why the immune system is able to recognise and destroy a tumour in some people, why it needs to be helped in others, and why this doesn't work in other patients.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently overseeing two main projects. One is an industry collaboration with a pharmaceutical company based here in Melbourne in which we are looking to find new molecules that we can target in melanoma cells in order to fight the cancer.
My lab’s other big project is examining the different ways in which the immune system can recognise cancers. For this, we measure the effectiveness of a patient’s immune system when it is in contact with a tumour and our aim is to take all of the information gained from looking at the tumour, as well as the patient’s blood, and predict whether the immune system will recognise the tumour well enough so that a certain type of immunotherapy might benefit the patient.
Will this be realised as a test that patients can take to determine the most effective drugs for their treatment?
That would be the ideal outcome and of course won’t be for many years in the future as these things don’t happen quickly. We are aiming to develop relatively simple tests that will allow us to select the right therapies with more confidence.
All of our current therapies that we use have a lot of side effects, so they’re not very nice for the body, and only around 40% of melanoma patients respond well to them. We want to spare patients the negative side effects of treatment, especially in cases where we believe that the tumours won’t respond to a particular treatment.
What would this test mean for cancer patients if implemented in the future?
I think that it would give patients more confidence as we wouldn’t need to say that a given therapy might only work if we’re lucky, as if we're flipping a coin - nobody wants to hear that. We want to say that there’s a very high likelihood of a drug working if given to a patient and that we will be able to confirm this within the first 3 or 4 weeks of treatment. If not, we can potentially swap the therapy with another one in time. I think that this would really benefit the patients, their families and the health system.
When did you realise that you wanted to pursue cancer research as your career?
In my case, it came out of intellectual interest and the challenge involved. I was lucky in that no one in my family had cancer, so there wasn’t a deep personal motivation that drove me to pursue cancer research. I was always interested in biology during my studies at university, where I learned about cell biology in general and also a little bit about cancer. I thought that it was fascinating from an intellectual perspective how the body’s own cells can completely lose control of their programming and start dividing to potentially kill a person, and I often used to think about how great it would be to help everyone who is suffering from cancer.
Has immunotherapy always been your primary focus in cancer research?
When I started out my studies in Germany, I was looking at various types of head and neck cancers, including cancers of the throat. There is a subgroup of cancers that are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and I was interested in understanding how a virus could reprogram a cell to become cancerous, so that was what I did before coming into Professor Jonathan Cebon’s lab in Australia.
Back then, Jonathan Cebon's lab was already focusing on a certain type of immunotherapy for use in melanoma treatment, but it was different to the one that we are now looking at. The whole idea of utilising each individual patient’s immune system as an “in-built” personalized anti-cancer drug really got my attention however. Over the years, new drugs and data came out which proved that immunotherapy could very potently control cancers in many patients and so our research started to look more into that area.
What’s the hardest aspect of being a researcher?
Every researcher will tell you that the funding situation is terrible at the moment. It is very short-term, with contracts normally only going over a year or two, and we are constantly writing requests for funding from different organisations instead of spending that time researching in the lab, which is what we are trained for and really want to do, so that’s a massive challenge.
There are other challenges involved in this job, but these are often also the most interesting things, like how you can never stop learning. Something will be discovered every day that might be important to the work that you are doing and so you always need to be on top of things, able to change your thinking or switch directions, as well as let go of ideas that aren’t working out. You also need to be very open-minded and able to think outside the box, especially within the realms of big data and collaborating with people who are not necessarily within the field of cancer research.
You completed your PhD in Germany and worked at the Melbourne branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) before joining the ONJCRI. How does the ONJCRI compare to the previous institutions that you have studied at?
There is some overlap between the two organisations as, after all, the ONJCRI was established as the successor of the LICR in Melbourne. However, the ONJCRI hierarchy is flatter and easier to work within. It’s easy to go and ask our Directors something or have a chat with any of the people around you, and everyone here is very nice and happy to collaborate. A big advantage of being a smaller institute is that we are able to discuss or criticise things openly without negativity being involved, which makes for a good working environment. It’s difficult to compare my time in Germany to here as I was in a university environment over there, which is completely different to that of a research institute.
What do you love the most about being a researcher?
I think that it is what I mentioned earlier as being one of the biggest challenges. There’s always something new to be discovered and you cannot stop learning. Something exciting is always happening and those rare moments where you discover something novel or see that your idea for tackling a problem has actually worked out keep you motivated and inspired to come to work every day.