After fleeing bombs as a child, and surviving cancer in her early 20’s, Professor Maria Kavallaris’ breakthrough research in nanotechnology is helping to fight childhood cancer.
Professor Kavallaris is the program head at the Children’s Cancer Institute based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and leads the Tumour Biology and Targeting program as well as co-directing the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine.
Her research is internationally renowned and focuses on understanding the biology of how cancer cells grow and spread, why some patients respond to cancer therapies and others don’t. But it’s been her discoveries in how new proteins interact with cancer as well as nanotechnology that have led to breakthroughs in more effective cancer therapies.
Kavallaris’ research has yielded numerous accolades including: the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence winner, being recognised in the inaugural Knowledge Nation 100 and being awarded the 2017 NSW Premier’s Science and Engineering Prize for Leadership in Innovation.
Speaking to Neos Kosmos from her laboratory at the UNSW, Sydney, Professor Kavallaris admitted there is still much more work to be done in fighting the killer disease.
"One of the things to remember with children’s cancer is although we have been making great advances in treatment, and there has been dramatic improvement in survival rates, it’s still the number one cause of disease related deaths in children in Australia,” she said.
Kavallaris shared that the big problem with cancer treatment like chemotherapy is while it targets cancer cells, it also damages normal healthy cells, but nanotechnology has been a breakthrough with how it deals with the disease.
"In any children’s cancer ward in Australia, close to 50 per cent of cancer patients are actually being treated for side effects of the treatment that is given to them to cure that disease,” she said. “That’s why I got involved in nanotechnology. Because I saw opportunities in childhood cancer to develop ways of delivering drugs to tumours while trying to spare the normal cells."
"Some of the therapies are very good at curing certain types of cancers so we are really focusing on the cancers where survival rates are very low and our current therapies aren’t good enough."
Born in Australia to Greek Cypriot parents, Kavallaris was in early primary school when she and her family returned to Cyprus. Unfortunately, when the Mediterranean island was invaded by Turkey her family were caught up in the conflict.
"I do remember it very vividly,” she said. “We lived in Morphou which was about 40 to 50 kilometres from Kyrenia where Turkey invaded the top half of Cyprus, so it was visible from our house where the fighting happened."
"When our area started getting bombed, our parents took us to the mountains where my mother’s grandparents were, and we spent four weeks up there."
After an announcement on the radio was made that non-Cypriot passport holders could go to a British base and be flown to safety the family, who were Australian citizens, fled.
"The day that we were at the British bases to leave, Morphou got taken over,” she said. “We lost everything and got air-lifted to the UK. After flights back to Australia, my family had to start over again after 1974."
Growing up in Sydney Kavallaris’ passion for science started to grow and she laughs when she looks back at how she got her start in the field.
"I left school in year 10, it was a bit terrible as I was a high school dropout,” she said. “I went and did my pathology technician course at TAFE and once I finished that course I wanted to do that at university. Then I got my first job at a laboratory at the University of Sydney and Professor Alan Mackay-Sim (2017 Australian of the Year) was the one who trained me."
“I realised that there were all these opportunities to do science degrees and do honours so I thought I was definitely going to do a degree."
But while she was studying for her undergraduate degree, Kavallaris suddenly had a number of tragedies befall herself and her family.
“I got cancer myself when I was 21 during that time and I had to go through treatment and therapies,” she says. “I got extremely ill and it made me appreciate that we needed to make treatment better."
“I saw a lot of people around me who didn’t make it. I was already in cancer research and I thought ‘when I finish my undergraduate degree I’m going to do a PhD’, and that’s what I did."
"I got through my treatment, I survived it, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking. And while I was doing the first year of my PhD my brother got pancreatic cancer and died within six weeks of diagnosis. It was a terrible and confronting situation."
Clearly, Kavallaris’ personal experiences had a profound influence on her career.
"People often ask me what drove me and there is no doubt that the impact of three things affected me,” she said. “First my brother, who didn’t have the option to have any treatment, second my illness and three seeing these young kids from toddlers all the way to teenagers and witnessing their world being turned upside down due to their health."
When Kavallaris finished her PhD she worked at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York where she identified medicine that focused on skeleton of the cells. The discovery, related to ovarian cancer – the same cancer she survived at 21, saw her receive an award from the American Association for Cancer. So, when she returned to Australia she applied her knowledge at the Children’s Cancer Institute.
It led to Kavallaris receiving major grants from Cure Cancer Australia that allowed her to kick-start her career in cancer research.
"Being a full-time researcher was very important to me and I was able to stay in that and build my own research team,” she said.
"I went from those early days to now having about 19 scientists working with me. But it’s not easy, and while I did have success there are also a lot of failures in between as well. The thing is to persevere as it was something I really wanted to do."
Despite current Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Simmons being recognised for her work, Kavallaris feels more needs to be done to assist women in the field of science.
Yvonne is an outstanding scientist and a wonderful role model and passionate about supporting female careers,” Professor Kavallaris said.
"I also mentor a number of male and female scientists, and three quarters of my team are female. There is still a lot of unconscious bias in terms of how women are assessed and how they are promoted. A lot of that is changing in universities where there is a real effort to make sure women are given the same opportunities."
While Kavallaris’ work in cancer research has affected many lives in a positive way her main focus is on finding the next big breakthrough as well as the next generation of researchers.
"I'm passionate about making sure that I try and drive my research to be a step ahead and to see what sort of new technologies and what new opportunities will make a difference,” she said.
"For me, one of my biggest achievements is being able to put my love of cancer research into the people I train to become future scientists. Because we are going to need them as medical research is becoming increasingly important for future treatments and discoveries."
The Kids’ Cancer Project is proud to have supported Professor Kavallaris’ work from 2009 to 2017.
Source: This article was written by Con Stamocostas and was originally published by Neos Kosmos on 29 March 2018. Images kindly supplied by Neos Kosmos.