From a picturesque Italian village to now leading global collaboration to cure childhood brain cancer, this paediatric oncologist has come a long way.
Dr Nick Gottardo believes he was destined to be a doctor. He knew from the age of six that medicine was his future. Growing up in the Northern Italian village of Sondalo in the 1970s, he would spend time with family friends who worked at the local hospital and was in awe of the stethoscopes they wore around their necks.
“I could see that they were helping people and I wanted to do this, too,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
True to his early ambition, Dr Gottardo has dedicated his professional life to medicine and is now the Head of Oncology and Haematology at Perth Children’s hospital and co-head of Telethon Kids Institute’s Brain Tumour Research Team.
With vital funding support from The Kids’ Cancer Project, he is currently working on a research project that may dramatically improve the lives of children undergoing cancer treatment.
Passion from childhood
Dr Gottardo’s interest in oncology also stems from his childhood days.
A young girl in his village required an urgent blood transfusion as part of her treatment for leukemia and the local hospital rallied the villagers to donate blood.
“I can clearly remember waking up in the middle of the night when my father got a call to come and donate blood because the girl was in desperate need,” said Dr Gottardo.
“She passed away a few days later and my father, who is now 72, still carries a photo of her in his wallet. This memory has always stayed with me and I’ve always thought that if she’d been born today, we would have been able to cure her,” he said.
The future doctor moved with his family to the UK when he was eight and he went on to study medicine at University of Leeds.
A desire to see the world brought him to Australia with a working holiday visa in the mid 1990s. He worked as a locum at hospitals in New South Wales and Western Australia, but his heart was always in paediatrics.
“One of my rotations was in oncology and I realised that I wanted to dedicate my life to trying to cure kids of cancer,” he said.
Dr Gottardo’s study aims to uncover new treatment for children with medulloblastoma (which is the most common brain cancer in children) and reduce the long-term toxicity associated with current treatments.
“The cure rates of medulloblastoma are about 70 per cent overall, but we know that the children who survive are left with significant long-term side effects from the radiation therapy as it has to be given to the whole of the brain and spinal column,” he explained.
“The side effects can really impact a child’s ability to grow and live productive lives with dignity.”
His research involves combining a drug called prexasertib (iCHK) with radiotherapy in order to reduce the necessary radiation dosage. The drug works by inhibiting the ability of cancer cells to repair themselves after the DNA damage caused by chemotherapy or radiation.
“The drug only works well in combination with other treatments,” said Dr Gottardo, who was nominated and a finalist for WA’s Australian of the Year Award in 2018.
“If it can make radiation more effective by preventing cancer cells from repairing themselves, can we use less radiation and therefore improve the quality of life of the survivors? That’s what we’re testing now,” he said.
The Kids’ Cancer Project has been funding this scientific study since July 2018. It involves treating avatar models of medulloblastoma, developed using medulloblastoma cancer cells taken from patients at the time of surgery to remove their tumour, with a combination of iCHK and radiation.
Dr Gottardo is now working closely with scientists across the globe, including those at St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he spent three years as a post-doctoral brain tumour fellow.
The plan is to take the drug into a clinical trial with chemotherapy as part of a collaboration with St Jude’s.
“That will give us data and safety to use it for children with brain tumours in combination with chemotherapy and, if our experiments prove effective, it may also be used in a clinical trial in the next five years in combination with radiation,” said Dr Gottardo.
“We need to bear in mind that the drug itself may have side effects and that’s why it’s essential that we be so rigorous in our research.”
Dr Gottardo said the funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project is vital to the future of childhood cancer treatment.
“Our aim to take the findings from our lab into the clinic, and that’s why this funding is so important,” he said. “The experiments are highly sophisticated, and the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of children with cancer.”