Leading children’s cancer scientist awarded for outstanding research

15 Mar 2019

Professor Murray Norris AM, Deputy Director of Children’s Cancer Institute and Director of the Centre for Childhood Cancer Research at the University of New South Wales, has won the inaugural Sally Crossing AM Award for an Outstanding Outcome in Cancer Research.

Presented by the Cancer Council New South Wales at a ceremony held last night, Thursday 14 March, the award went to Professor Norris for his pioneering work on the early detection of relapse in children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common type of cancer in children.

His research, supported over many years by Cancer Council funding, led to a major change in the clinical management of children with ALL, resulting in a significant improvement in survival rates.

“I’m very honoured to receive this prestigious new award, which recognises cancer research that really makes a difference,” said Professor Norris, who in 2015 was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to medical research. ‘‘I’ve always had a strong drive for my work to have clinical meaning. Knowing that there are children who are alive today because of research I’ve led is a wonderful feeling.”

Professor Norris and his team were the first to develop a new molecular genetic technique that made it possible to detect a single leukaemia cell among a million normal cells – a test about 20,000 times more sensitive than standard testing based on microscopy.

The technique involves the molecular detection of minimal residual disease group (MRD): very small numbers of cancer cells that have survived treatment and are able to go on multiplying, ultimately leading to relapse. By identifying those children with significant levels of MRD after the first round of treatment, it is possible to predict at an early stage which children are most at risk of relapse, providing an opportunity for their treatment to be intensified.

The first clinical trial of the MRD technique in children with ALL, which began in Australia in 2002 and ran for almost 10 years, led to a doubling of the survival rate of children with ‘high-risk ALL’ – those with the worst prognosis. Several international clinical trials followed, and today, treatment decisions for all children diagnosed with ALL in Australia are based on MRD testing.

The Sally Crossing AM Award is dedicated to the memory of the late Sally Crossing AM, a tireless advocate for consumer involvement in cancer research. Children’s Cancer Institute has a long history of consumer involvement, having been founded by the parents of children with cancer back in the 1970s. Jack Kasses, one of the founding parents and the inaugural Chairman of the Institute, whose daughter was successfully treated for ALL, has had a close association with Professor Norris for over thirty years. “Jack has been a strong motivating force for me personally in my desire to achieve better outcomes for children with ALL,” said Professor Norris.

One of the original three scientists to join Children’s Cancer Institute when its laboratories first opened, Professor Norris said he was gratified to have witnessed a significant rise in the survival rate of children with ALL during his time in cancer research. “When I began working in childhood cancer research in the 1980s, ALL accounted for more deaths in children than any other cancer. Almost all children with ALL went into remission after initial treatment, but almost a third of them went on to relapse, and most of these children didn’t survive.

“Today, the survival rate for ALL is over 85% – a fantastic achievement, and testament to the power of medical research.”