In Focus: Children’s Cancer Institute

In Focus: Children’s Cancer Institute Learn more about the institutes we support through our In Focus series.

Children’s Cancer Institute is the only independent medical research institute in Australia wholly dedicated to childhood cancer.

The Institute’s focus is on translational research, making sure discoveries are progressed into actual treatments for kids with cancer as quickly as possible. Their state-of-the-art labs are part of the world-renowned Lowy Cancer Research Centre at UNSW Sydney and are fully equipped for molecular and genetic research studies.
Children’s Cancer Institute’s s research programs bring together recognised leaders in the field under a common aim of ultimately driving improved health outcomes for children with cancer. These programs seek to understand childhood cancer so it can be prevented, more effective diagnoses can be discovered, better and safer treatment options can be examined and ultimately a cure found for children affected by the disease. The overarching theme of all the research conducted at the institute is to find a more targeted and individualised approach to diagnostics and treatment.

Meet the scientists we've funded at Children's Cancer Institute

Associate Professor David Ziegler 

Associate Professor David Ziegler is a Group Leader at Children’s Cancer Institute where his preclinical research focuses on novel therapies for childhood brain tumours.
He is a paediatric oncologist with expertise in neuro-oncology and early phase clinical trials. Associate Professor Ziegler completed his clinical training in paediatric haematology/oncology at Sydney Children’s Hospital. From 2005-2007, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston. His research focused on the preclinical development and clinical translation of novel therapies for paediatric brain tumours.
Associate Professor Ziegler is a senior Staff Specialist in the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. He has established a translational research program to develop novel therapies for children with cancer and heads the Centre’s clinical trials unit.
He is currently one of the chief investigators of an international clinical trial of the drug DFMO. The trial is open at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick and in 14 hospitals across North America. Our research shows that chemotherapy drugs attack neuroblastoma much more effectively when used in combination with DFMO. The trial is assessing the safety and activity of DFMO given together with chemotherapy for children with relapsed neuroblastoma. A/Prof Ziegler is also Clinical Trial Lead Investigator for the upcoming national clinical trial of the Zero Childhood Cancer personalised medicine program, led by Children's Cancer Institute and Sydney Children's Hospitals Network.

Associate Professor Ziegler is a conjoint associate professor at UNSW and chairman of The Kids' Cancer Project Research Advisory Committee.

Read more: Synthetic retinoid therapy for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.

Professor Michelle Haber AM 

Professor Haber joined Children’s Cancer Institute as a staff scientist in 1984. She was appointed Director of the Institute in June 2000, Executive Director in June 2003 and member of the board in November 2003. Professor Haber is known for her world-class research into the treatment of neuroblastoma and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children. Professor Haber holds a conjoint appointment as Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales. She has served as President (2010-2012) and currently serves on the Steering Committee of the International Advances in Neuroblastoma Research Association.
In 2007 Professor Haber was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to science in the field of research into childhood cancer, to scientific education and to the community. In 2008, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of New South Wales for her eminent service to the cancer research community. In 2014, Professor Haber was awarded the Cancer Institute NSW’s Premier’s Award for Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year, and in 2015 she was appointed an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.  

Read more: Personalised Medicine: Zero Childhood Cancer.

Dr Michelle Henderson
Dr Michelle Henderson is a Senior Scientist and Project Leader at Children’s Cancer Institute. She leads research into paediatric leukaemia, with a particular focus on infant leukaemia, which is a particularly aggressive disease with dismal prognosis. By utilising approaches such as high-throughput screening, cell biology and patient-derived xenograft models of leukaemia, Dr Henderson’s group focuses on identifying new compounds with the ability to selectively target infant leukaemia cells in an effort to devise more effective and less toxic therapies for this devastating disease. Dr Henderson’s other research areas include studying ABC transporters as key downstream effectors of Myc family oncoproteins and exploiting these as potential therapeutic targets in neuroblastoma and other cancers.

Read more: Targeting the NAD pathway as a new therapeutic strategy for high-risk leukaemia in children.

Professor Maria Kavallaris

Professor Maria Kavallaris is Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at Children's Cancer Institute and Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at UNSW Sydney.
Her research contributions are internationally regarded and include identifying the mechanisms of action and resistance to anticancer drugs, discovering new protein interactions in cancer and the development of less toxic cancer therapies using nanotechnology.
Professor Kavallaris has held numerous competitive fellowships. She is a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Principal Research Fellow and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS). Her research contributions have been recognised by international and national awards and prizes including an International Agency for Research on Cancer Fellowship, an American Association for Cancer Research Women in Cancer Research Award, NHMRC Career Development Award, a Young Tall Poppy Award and an Australian Museum Eureka Prize. Professor Kavallaris was the recipient of a 2017 NSW Premier's Science and Engineering Prize and in 2015 was named an AFR/Westpac 100 Woman of Influence and one of the Knowledge Nation 100.
Professor Kavallaris' expertise is reflected in invitations to edit a book, contribute book chapters and review articles, including Nature Reviews Cancer. She is regularly invited to speak at and chair international meetings. Her research is supported by competitive research funding from diverse agencies including the NHMRC and Australian Research Council.
Professor Kavallaris has served on numerous committees including the Program Committee for the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research and the International NanoMedicine conference, and on funding review panels. She is Chair of the Board of the Australian Institute for Policy and Science and has played a major role in advocating medical research through public outreach. She has served as President of the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) and was recognised by the NHMRC in 2014 as an Australian ‘high achiever’ in health and medical research. She serves on the NHMRC Research Committee where she contributes to high-level research policy.

Read more: Stathmin regulation of microRNA expression in neuroblastoma cells.

Professor Richard Lock 
Professor Richard Lock was recruited as Head of the Leukaemia Biology Program at Children’s Cancer Institute in 1998 from the position of Associate Professor, Department of Medicine and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Prior to his move, he had attained an international reputation in the cancer-related fields of cell cycle control, drug resistance and mechanisms of programmed cell death (apoptosis).
At Children’s Cancer Institute, Professor Lock has successfully developed a clinically relevant laboratory model for the in vivo growth of human acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells – the first such model in Australia. The model now plays a central role in the preclinical evaluation of anticancer agents and the identification of new targets for targeted therapies as part of the US National Cancer Institute's Pediatric Preclinical Testing Consortium.
Professor Lock's contribution to cancer research has been reflected in his authorship of more than 155 peer-reviewed papers, including several in prestigious journals such as Blood, Cancer Research, Cell Stem Cell, Clinical Cancer Research, The Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Oncogene. He is currently a National Health and Medical Research Council Senior Research Fellow, and has been awarded research grants by the National Cancer Institute (USA), Cancer Council NSW, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
Professor Lock is the inaugural Deputy Director of the UNSW Centre for Childhood Cancer Research. He is also Head, Preclinical Drug Testing Core (PDTC) Team for the Zero Childhood Cancer personalised medicine program led by Children's Cancer Institute and Sydney Children's Hospitals Network.
Read more: Reversing glucocorticoid resistance in paediatric acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – a novel epigenetic.

Dr Alla Dolnikov

Alla Dolnikov, PhD, is Principal Hospital Scientist at Sydney Children’s Hospital and leader of the Blood and Marrow Transplant group at Children’s Cancer Institute. She also teaches students at UNSW as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine, supervising students conducting their Honours, Masters and PhD projects. Dr Dolnikov completed her PhD in Histology and Embryology. For the last 20 years she has been developing gene therapy for leukaemia and solid tumours. In 2012 her group started a new project developing novel experimental immunotherapy using patient’s own immune cells genetically modified in the laboratory to recognise tumour cells.
Dr Dolnikov has strong expertise in gene and cellular therapy, obtained while collaborating with Johnson & Johnson Research to develop new gene therapy technology targeting haematopoietic stem cells. This extremely productive collaboration resulted in several important publications in high profile journals in the areas of stem cell biology, cancer research and gene therapy, including Blood, Leukaemia, Cancer Research, Oncogene, and Stem Cells. Dr Dolnikov continues her affiliation with industry; her recent proposal was approved by the research committee of Novartis.

Read more: Pre-clinical development of novel immune therapy for paediatric cancers.  
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