Behind the science: Daniel Kilmartin

Behind the science: Daniel Kilmartin

ANZCHOG Biobanking Network Project Coordinator, Daniel Kilmartin, reveals the special role that samples play in fighting childhood cancer.

Around the country, in freezers carefully set at minus-83 degrees Celsius, there are cancer breakthroughs just waiting to happen.

Tens of thousands of kids’ cancer samples – solid tumours, blood, tissue and bone marrow – live in high-tech storage banks, known as biobanks, around Australia. And they’re a pivotal part of the scientific fight against childhood cancer, explains Daniel Kilmartin.

“Every sample we hold on to, we assist with, could lead to a better treatment,” he says. 

Daniel is the new project coordinator of the ANZCHOG Biobanking Network, an overarching body that connects the nine childhood cancer biobanks throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Daniel came into the role in August 2020, alongside the new network chair, Associate Professor Andy Moore. Daniel and Andy have worked together previously at the Queensland Children’s Tumour Bank (one of the biobanks in the network) and will run the network from their Brisbane offices. 

Read more: Behind the science | Dr Andy Moore​

The ANZCHOG Biobanking Network has been operating since 2015, when it was launched thanks to funds from The Kids’ Cancer Project – a charity that has committed funding to the tune of $600,000 to the network from 2015 to 2022. 

When the network launched, there was not a lot of communication or consistency within the banks, but that’s changed now, says Daniel. 

“In my previous role I saw first-hand how the network harmonised the biobanks and encouraged best practice,” Daniel says. 

“The wealth of knowledge from established banks gets shared with the younger ones, and the network improves every bank’s relationship with researchers – so everyone benefits.”

So how do biobanks work?

The samples are essentially left-over parts from a biopsy or other routine test – which would otherwise get discarded. A child’s parent or guardian gives permission for the sample to be given to the bank, and it’s processed and stored either in a freezer or in liquid nitrogen. 

And there it stays until it’s needed for research, either here in Australia or around the world. But samples are only given to qualified researchers who have approval to conduct a study, and a patient will never be identified through their sample in published research. 

These days, samples are often used for genomic testing, explains Daniel, or they could be used to try out a new drug or therapy. All of which could lead to clinical trials, directly benefiting children diagnosed with cancer. 

“Kids might spend less time in hospital or get a less toxic drug as a result – which is a big driving motivation to promote our biobanks,” Daniel says. 

Getting samples out to researchers is as important as having them in the first place, and that’s a key part of Daniel’s role as project coordinator. 

“A successful biobank isn’t one with a full freezer, it’s one where all the samples are out with researchers and being used,” he says. 

“In my former role, the challenge was finding time to connect with the researchers who are doing the work on the samples we have. I hope now I can take that pressure off the individual banks.” 

Read more: National tumour biobanking network 

Before the network existed, a researcher would have to contact each biobank individually to collect multiple samples and then navigate the different systems and protocols – now it all gets coordinated by Daniel. He is also actively promoting the network to researchers both here and globally. 

“Our goal is to make the researcher’s job easier, so more research happens,” says Daniel who is inspired by the tremendous dedication he sees in the world of paediatric oncology. 

“I didn’t know much about children’s cancer until 18 months ago, and it’s been eye opening to see how many clinical trials are going on in this space,” he says. 

“Clinical oncologists work tirelessly to get as many kids as possible on a trial – it’s like another full-time job for them.” 

He believes that biobanks are a crucial support to them. 

“Whatever can be done in biobanks to progress research should be done – that little extra step we take here could lead to a breakthrough,” Daniel says.

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