Behind the science: Professor Maria Kavallaris

Behind the science: Professor Maria Kavallaris

Meet the winner of the 2020 NSW Premier's Woman of the Year Award, Professor Maria Kavallaris is an admired and inspiring leader in the field of childhood cancer research.

The winner of the 2020 NSW Premier's Woman of the Year Award, Professor Maria Kavallaris is an admired and inspiring leader in the field of childhood cancer research.

There’s a fascinating statistic that highlights the massive impact of childhood cancer research, particularly considering its funding status as the poor cousin to adult cancer research, says Professor Maria Kavallaris from Children’s Cancer Institute.

When a calculation was done around the collective number of disability adjusted life years saved per cancer patient, childhood cancer came second only to breast cancer. This is despite the fact that adult cancers are far more common.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that childhood cancer is the number one cause of disease-related death in children.

The importance of childhood cancer research is beginning to be recognised by progressive governments in Australia and globally, says Maria, who is Children’s Cancer Institute Head of Translational Cancer Nanomedicine Theme and co-director of the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine.

Some governments, for instance, are incentivising pharmaceutical companies that have developed drugs and therapies for adult cancers. If those companies go through the processes required for clinical trials around childhood cancers and their drugs become part of a childhood cancer therapy, the patent lives of those drugs are extended.

Childhood cancer research is also being acknowledged in public and business forums, most recently with Maria’s nomination as one of three finalists for the major award at the 2020 NSW Women of the Year Awards. Along with artist, lawyer and writer Amani Haydar and cardiologist and researcher, Professor Clara Chow, Maria is a finalist for the 2020 NSW Premier's Woman of the Year award. 

Funding fuels brilliant research

Sadly, at the same time that her work is being publicly recognised, the struggle for funding for important projects is just as real as it ever was.

“Without funding we simply couldn’t do the research,” Maria says. “We could not support our students and our postdoctoral scientists. And we couldn’t afford essential consumables we’re using to conduct the research.”

“When you’ve got a powerful idea and you want to drive it forward, it’s very frustrating when you can’t progress because of a lack of funding. And that happens! Laboratories close and projects end because of funding troubles.”

A recent success story was a research project spearheaded by Maria and her colleagues looking into how neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer that grows from immature nerve cells, metastasises and spreads. The knowledge that has come from the study, which resulted in a paper being published in the British Journal of Cancer, will be used to discover vulnerabilities in neuroblastoma cells and to develop new treatments against them.

“This work was almost exclusively funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project and when they first funded us, it was just an idea,” Maria says.

“If we went to a big, national funding body, they wouldn’t have funded us, but The Kids’ Cancer Project looked at our track record, at our skills and our resources, and they could see the value.”

Read more: Stathmin regulation of microRNA expression in neuroblastoma cells

“We’re now at the stage of seeking further funding to begin looking into how we might exploit the vulnerabilities for therapeutic gain. Metastatic disease is incredibly difficult to cure in any form of cancer, so now we’ve broken down the biology and begun to understand the genetic alterations in those cells that drive the metastatic spread.”

“Seeking funding” is the first job Maria was given when she joined Children’s Cancer Institute two decades ago.

“When I came back from my postdoctoral studies in the US, I said I wanted to set up an independent research group,” she says.

“[Children’s Cancer Institute] said, ‘No problem, but you have to find your own funding.’ I scraped up a very small amount of money to get a part-time technician in that first year, to help out while I ran experiments and wrote more grant applications.”

Today things are not very different, she says. Her work is grander in its ambition, but nothing becomes real until it is funded.

Worthy of an award

Maria is certainly no stranger to awards for her breakthrough research. In the past she has been honoured with an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award, has been recognised in the inaugural Knowledge Nation 100, and has been awarded the 2017 NSW Premier’s Science and Engineering Prize for Leadership in Innovation. In 2019, Maria was appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia for her significant service to medicine, and to medical research, in the field of childhood and adult cancers.

So what does the award nomination for NSW Premier's Woman of the Year mean for Maria, who has achieved so much in the field of childhood cancer research over the last two decades?

“I am very honoured,” she says. “This award is not just about what you’ve done in your work, but also about the broader service to community. I’ve served, and still do serve, on a lot of major government committees and such, as well as doing my research.”

“So this is not a scientific award, but for me it is an opportunity to really promote the cause of childhood cancer research. And to tell the truth, I couldn’t think of a better cause to promote.”

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