Associate Professor Rachel Conyers is a paediatric, adolescent and young adult malignant haematologist oncologist, meaning she looks at how cancer effects the blood of young people and children.
In 2016, she was awarded a Clinician Scientist Fellowship at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, where she is currently working on a research project that aims to unlock the reasons why a chemotherapeutic drug class, known as anthracyclines, has a devastating effect on the heart cells of around seven per cent of patients.
Straight to the heart
Anthracyclines are used to treat more than 70 per cent of childhood and adolescent cancers and have significantly improved survival rates. However, for reasons Rachel is aiming to uncover, they can also switch off, and ultimately kill, heart cells.
Read more: Understanding The Genetic Basis Of Chemotherapy-Induced Cardiomyopathy
Rachel recalls examples of when patients who have otherwise been well at the completion of therapy, developed significant heart complications, some even having life-threatening events.
“Those moments have stuck with me,” says Rachel. “I’m driven to find better solutions so these kids can have better outcomes.”
“What I'm looking for in my research are ways to identify those patients with a propensity for cardiac-types of side effects,” explains Rachel.
“Are there genetic components that make some more likely to get these heart complications? If we can identify the children at risk, we can either not give them the drug, or give them a protective medication.”
As part of her research, Rachel has conducted a retrospective study of 300 former patients at two of Melbourne’s leading paediatric medical institutions - The Royal Children’s Hospital and Monash Children’s Hospital. Most had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and small number suffered other cancers, such as bone sarcomas. This has now broadened to a national study involving over 13 adult and paediatric institutes.