Behind the science: Professor Michelle Haber

Behind the science: Professor Michelle Haber

Professor Michelle Haber, a globally esteemed researcher of childhood cancer, is as driven now as she was three-and-a-half decades ago when she first began making her mark.

Professor Michelle Haber, a globally esteemed researcher of childhood cancer, is as driven now as she was three-and-a-half decades ago when she first began making her mark.

On a whim one Friday afternoon in 1978, having recently completed her Honours in Clinical Psychology, Michelle Haber wandered from the familiar confines of the psychology building at the University of New South Wales to the offices of the faculty of Medicine. Here she met with a Professor of Pathology who would help change the course of her career.

Michelle knew her passion was research and wanted to find a way into a research career, where she’d make a tangible difference to the world. The professor recommended she do a PhD around the topic of the chemical causes of cancer. So she did, and never looked back.

“I still remember the thrill of attracting my first grant at the beginning of my career. The funds would mean I could hire someone to work with me,” Michelle, now a Professor herself, and a Member of the Order of Australia, says.
“Then we’d get a second grant and then another, and that’s wonderful because it means you can do some truly meaningful work and hang on to great people. That pressure of funding never goes away, even 30 years on.”

Professor Haber, Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute (having joined as the inaugural staff scientist in 1984!) is also Co-Head of the Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics theme and Group Leader of Experimental Therapeutics.
She has recently received funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project and Cancer Australia for a new project aimed at improving the efficacy of a novel treatment approach for aggressive childhood cancer. The results of the study are likely to move rapidly into clinical trials for children suffering with these aggressive cancers.

Read more: Enhanced polyamine depletion for aggressive childhood cancers

In particular, the study aims to produce the substantial body of data required to inform clinical trial development for kids diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma, the commonest tumour of young children and an aggressive cancer of the nervous system. The findings will also be relevant to children suffering from diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an aggressive brain tumour which tragically has a zero survival rate.

“What was very exciting to me about this particular grant is that a major part of the work, planning and drafting that went into it came from a very bright, young post doc, Dr Ruby Pandher,” Michelle says. “She is at the same point in her career that I was, 35 years ago.”
“Ruby said to me, ‘You've supported me for the last five years and now I want to begin contributing back to the group. I want to be able to return the favour by bringing funding that will support this work that I love'.”
"I was so excited for her, and for the children it will help, when the project was supported by The Kids’ Cancer Project.”

Michelle has won numerous awards and high-level honours. In 2012 she earned the Premier’s Award for Translational Cancer Research. In 2014 she was honoured with the NSW Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year award. She’s an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences and received the Order of Australia for services to science in the field of research into childhood cancer.

What is it that keeps such a high-performing individual engaged in the world of research? That’s simple, she says. Too many children still die from cancer, and that’s not acceptable.

“Cancer is the most common cause of death from disease in kids in this country,” she says. “Despite the fact that survival rates with certain cancers have increased dramatically over the last few decades, we’re still seeing too many children die after undergoing treatments that themselves cause poor quality of life.”
“There is a great deal more work to do to improve current treatments, improve quality of life and achieve the goal of Children’s Cancer Institute of one day being able to cure every child who has cancer.”

High-risk neuroblastoma has one of the poorest survival rates amongst children’s cancers, with survival of less than 50 per cent. Current treatments, Michelle says, can also result in devastating side effects.
Michelle’s team’s research is focussed on finding safer, better and more effective treatments for high-risk neuroblastoma. One of the most exciting developments from her team is a new treatment approach which involves blocking a particular metabolic pathway in neuroblastoma cells. The treatment starves the neuroblastoma cells of chemicals called polyamines, which they depend on for survival. A previous clinical trial, also partially funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project, showed very promising results in some children on the trial, but not all, and so Michelle’s team wanted to improve on this.
The new study aims to optimise this treatment by finding better, smarter and more effective ways of blocking this metabolic pathway in these cells. The approach has already had positive results in laboratory testing.

“So we have got this potentially very exciting new treatment, but what do we need to do to have maximum impact when we test this new therapy in a clinical trial?” Michelle asks.
“This grant is all about the things we can do to optimise the likelihood of a great outcome from the planned neuroblastoma clinical trial of this new treatment approach. We hope it will have a positive impact on the future of neuroblastoma treatment and on the quality of life of the children being treated.” 


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