2015 Research Awards

Honouring the achievements of the individuals and teams that work across the cancer research sector to lessen the impact of cancer for the people of NSW.

2015 winners

Professor John Forbes AM

University of Newcastle, Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital, Australia New Zealand Breast Cancer Clinical Trials Group 

Professor Forbes was awarded this highest honour for his contribution to breast cancer research.

It celebrated his involvement with national and international clinical trials to develop new treatments for all types of breast cancer and, ultimately, prevention of the disease.

“Receiving this award was a proud occasion for my colleagues in the Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group, the many women who have participated in the trials, and for myself,” says Professor Forbes.

“The award recognised our national and international research into the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, which has led to better outcomes for women and their families.”

Professor Forbes has played an important role in the establishment of the Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group, the International Breast Cancer Study Group, and the Breast International Group.

He also established the Breast Cancer Institute of Australia—a charity which funds breast cancer clinical trial research—as well as the first consumer advisory panel in Australia to work with researchers in breast cancer clinical trials.

Additionally, he was instrumental in establishing the breast cancer screening program in the Hunter region in NSW (BreastScreen NSW Hunter New England) and the subsequent launch of the first mobile breast screening unit in Australia.

Professor Forbes says that key components of success are collaboration and respect—for colleagues and for our research data.

"Our long-term goal remains 'a world without breast cancer'."

“We all benefit from collaboration. Our research requires sufficient end points or events to allow confidence in the scientific reality of outcomes,” he says.

“Positive results can be accepted as real, and negative results as truly negative. None of us can ever know too much or even enough.

“Collaboration and good science can lead to reliable data for the benefit of us all.”

“We will continue to focus on less common types of breast cancer, defined by molecular subtypes.

"Previously, this has not been possible due to lack of molecular and genetic data.

“Today, collaboration and evolving technology allows us to explore these important aspects of breast cancer.

Professor Susan Clark

Garvan Institute

Professor Susan Clark was awarded for her extensive and ground-breaking discoveries over the last 20 years relating to cancer DNA biology and creation of DNA-based tests for early cancer prevention.

Professor Clark is internationally-renowned as an outstanding scientist and pioneer in epigenetic research.

“I was honoured and humbled to be recognised by my peers for my group’s research contributions to the growing field of epigenetics and its role in cancer biology,” says Professor Clark.

“To receive the Make a Difference Award was especially significant to me as the Late Professor Rob Sutherland was a good friend and mentor of mine for so many years.”

Cancer is a disease of the DNA—with multiple genetic and epigenetic mistakes, but what do these mistakes mean?

Professor Clark and her team have recently focused their research on mapping genetic and epigenetic lesions to identify the different subtypes of cancer in order to predict which mistakes lead to more aggressive disease or resistance to therapies.

She also stands by the idea that innovations can only happen if we all work together.

“Science is no-longer a game for singles but is a family affair that requires a combination of risk-taking and nurturing skills so that the whole family benefits and builds on the shoulders of their forbears,” says Professor Clark. 

“As a team, we are really excited in our new area of research, which has been enabled by the development of new sequencing technologies, and is now leading us to gain novel insights into the three-dimensional structure of cancer nucleus.”

“We believe these new fundamental insights will pave the wave for more effective cancer treatment options.”

Associate Professor Daniel Catchpoole

Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 

Associate Professor Daniel Catchpoole and his team were awarded the stage one grant last year for their work on a project which ‘makes sense’ of complex biomedical data.

It allows clinicians to interpret it in meaningful ways and provide more certain personalised treatment strategies for people with cancer.

“The project supported with this award has been our focus for over 12 years,” says A/Professor Catchpoole.

“Winning the Big Data, Big Impact Award has given us assurance that our vision for how genomics will eventually guide personalised cancer treatment is being realised.

“The acknowledgement that our work in this area has merit and substance provided us the impetus to keep following our ideas because, not only was it considered viable, but absolutely necessary.”

A/Professor Catchpoole and his team are currently working on a project that is paving the way for improvements in the health of children with rare diseases; in particular, rare childhood cancers.

The collaboration between the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network (Westmead), the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University aims to provide ’actionable knowledge’ to clinicians by making increasingly complex genomic data easier to interpret.

It does this through novel data mining and visualisation strategies that allow it to assist individual patient diagnosis and case management.

In this way, clinical decisions will be built on an increasing understanding of the range of biological factors that are common to the disease types, but also the unique features that characterise individual patients—information that is vital to direct personalised treatment options.

“We believe that for personalised medicine to be truly realised, we need to develop unique ways to ‘see’ patients as ‘individuals’ within a cohort,” explains A/Professor Catchpoole.

“This requires capturing and comparing many individual traits per patient, rather than just a few ‘markers’.”

“It is envisaged that new patients who have yet to be treated in the clinic will be able to have their genetic biological information compared to our larger cohort of patients through complex data mining, modelling and visual analytics.”

“If doctors know the treatment history of similar patients, they will be able to make more informed decisions.”

“This could change the vision of personalised medicine within our NSW cancer centres and beyond.”

Dr Geoffrey McCowage

Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 

Dr Geoffrey McCowage and the Children’s Cancer Gene Therapy Team received their award for outstanding work using gene therapy to improve treatment for children with brain cancer.

“We were delighted to win the award."

"This recognition of our efforts provided the team with both confidence and the impetus to continue on with the difficult task of designing and initiating investigator-led early phase trials for paediatric patients,” says Dr McCowage.

Throughout their research, the team have worked collaboratively with clinicians, cancer and genomics researchers at The Children’s Hospital in Westmead, Kids Research Institute, Sydney Call and Gene Therapy and RadPharm Scientific, with funding from The Kids Cancer Project.

Their research is testing new therapies for patients with brain tumours who have few alternative options.

This research is also extending their capacity to develop and deliver new gene therapy strategies to treat a broader range of paediatric cancer patients.

Dr McCowage says his team’s work is an important part of a collective effort to use gene therapy as a viable and innovative approach for treatment of paediatric brain tumours and reduce treatment side effects.

“We are looking to build on what we have achieved to ensure that new and emerging gene and cell therapies for cancer can be provided to Australian children at the earliest opportunity.”

Amber Johns

Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative, Garvan Institute

Amber Johns received last year’s ‘Wildfire’ Award for her team’s work on pancreatic cancer genomes.

Her paper ‘Pancreatic Cancer Genomes Reveal Aberrations in Axon Guidance Pathway Genes’ was published in Nature International Weekly Journal of Science in 2012.

“It’s tremendous recognition of many hard years of work for everyone,” says Ms Johns.

“The scientists, the clinicians who care for our patients, and the patients themselves who, despite all the challenges they face, believe in contributing to research.

“It was also great to see pancreatic cancer highlighted in a positive way, as there is so much negativity and nihilism that still surrounds this disease.”

Ms Johns’ article, with its accompanying open access data, has provided a roadmap that assists in the understanding of the molecular basis of pancreatic cancer

It also provides a basis for further research into the causes and improved treatment options for pancreatic cancer. 

“Technological advances are revolutionising the way we investigate disease, and we used this technology in a networked approach to characterise pancreatic cancer at the genomic level,” explains Ms Johns.

“Through this research, we provided the blueprint of pancreatic cancer genetics, and made it available to all researchers around the world.”

“We also showed the power of what can be achieved through a ‘team science’ approach, which is critical to advance stratified therapeutic strategies, as we are challenged by tremendous technological advances, diversity of disease and economic pressures.”

Associate Professor Sallie-Anne Pearson 

University of Sydney

Associate Professor Sallie-Anne Pearson was recognised for her work using population-based health data to assess patterns in treatment, safety and costs of cancer medicines in routine clinical care.

“The award was a wonderful recognition of the population and health service research undertaken by my team,” says A/Professor Pearson. 

“Despite the increasing investment in cancer medicines by healthcare funders globally, we understand very little about the way they are used and the outcomes of this use once they are widely available in the community.”

“While clinical trials are the undisputed gold standard for demonstrating treatment efficacy, they are conducted in populations that may not reflect the patients who use the medicine in the real world.”

“Clinical trials also have limited sample size and short-term follow-up, which limits their capacity to look at long-term impacts and rare outcomes associated with treatment.”

A/Professor Pearson and her team have built a unique data infrastructure, with some of the largest cohorts of people treated with high-cost targeted cancer medicines in the world.

The team are currently undertaking research on a range of targeted agents used to treat breast, colorectal and lung cancer. 

“The outcomes of this research have direct translational value,” she says.

“We work in partnership with professional bodies and government agencies to inform clinical practice, assist policy makers in making drug subsidy decisions, and support cancer planning services.”

Dr Angela Chou

Garvan Institute

Dr Angela Chou was recognised last year for her pioneering research in the field of gastrointestinal and pancreatic cancers.

Dr Chou’s research involves investigating novel personalised therapeutic approaches to treat pancreatic cancer.

“It was a great honour to receive this award,” says Dr Chou.

“The prize money is funding my travel to an international conference (EACR 2016) where I will present my research findings.”

“Winning this award will also help me to attract future funding so I can continue my research.”  

As a researcher, Dr Chou has worked collaboratively on the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative sequencing study, which has lead to work on one of her main projects; testing a novel drug (CDK4/6 cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor) to target a specific molecular sub-type of pancreatic cancer.

“The significance of this research is that we will be able to give the right drug to the right patient, and improve the survival outcomes for these patients,” explains Dr Chou.

The outcomes from the research could potentially improve survival for a considerable number of people with pancreatic cancers, as more than half of these cancers may respond to this new treatment.