Childhood cancer scientist rewarded for research excellence

01 Apr 2019

Children’s Cancer Institute researcher Professor Maria Kavallaris AM – who in January this year was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to medicine and to medical research – today received further recognition for her work, winning the prestigious Lemberg Medal.

Awarded annually by the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), the medal recognises distinguished scientists who have demonstrated excellence in biochemistry and molecular biology and made significant contributions to the scientific community. The 2019 medal will be presented to Maria at the ASBMB Annual Meeting in Perth later this year, where she will give the Lemberg Lecture.

Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at Children’s Cancer Institute, and Founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Maria is internationally recognised for her research in cancer biology and therapeutics, and has made several world-first discoveries.

One of the first scientists to join Children’s Cancer Institute, now 35 years ago, Maria has dedicated her professional life to improving the outlook of children with cancer. Despite much progress being made during that time, three children and adolescents still die of cancer every week in Australia. “Every time I hear a child has died, I realise how much more we have to do,” she says. “Fortunately, because of the excellent team and technology we have here at the Institute, we are well-positioned to continue to have any impact on the survival rates of children with cancer.”

Maria acknowledges that biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology are central to her research. “To find better ways of diagnosing and treating cancer, we really need to understand what’s going on at the gene level and how this affects cell function in health and disease,’ she explains. “When we understand the molecular alterations that are driving the growth and spread of cancer cells, we have something to target.”

Maria has focused key aspects of her research on investigating how cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs. One of her most significant discoveries was identifying specific genetic changes in tumour cells that make them resistant to chemotherapy, and developing a means of targeting these genetic changes and reversing the drug resistance. She is also recognised as an Australian pioneer in the medical application of nanotechnology, and has had significant success finding ways to package and deliver chemotherapy drugs in nanostructures that specifically target tumour cells. This approach not only aims to improve drug efficacy but also drug safety, minimising harmful effects on healthy tissues – a particularly important consideration in growing children.

A long-time member of the ASBMB, Maria contributes to high level research policy on national committees and panels, is co-Chair of the Australian Institute for Policy and Science, served as President of the Australian Society for Medical Research, and plays a major role in advocating medical research through public outreach.

‘It’s a real privilege to be able to make a difference to children’s lives through medical research. I’m very grateful to the ASBMB for the support it offers Australian scientists, and for recognising my contribution with this prestigious award.”