Professor Maria Kavallaris awarded the Walter Burfitt Prize

30 Nov 2023

Leading researcher, Professor Maria Kavallaris AM, has been awarded the prestigious Royal Society of New South Wales Walter Burfitt Prize for 2023 for her leadership, research and advocacy in the treatment of childhood cancer.

Awarded every three years by Australia’s oldest learned society, the Prize recognises outstanding excellence in science, technology, philosophy, and the arts.

As Leader of the Translational Cancer Nanomedicine Group at Children’s Cancer Institute, and founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at the University of NSW, Professor Kavallaris has made important discoveries in relation to the mechanisms of clinical drug resistance and tumour aggressiveness in childhood cancer. 

"I've dedicated my life to understanding and identifying effective treatments for cancer because I believe that everyone deserves a chance to survive. This award is a reminder that our work is making a difference, and it inspires me to continue pushing forward. This award is not just for me; it's for all the past and present brilliant students and researchers who I have had the honour of mentoring and working with,” said Professor Kavallaris.

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.

Professor Kavallaris 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. 

Professor Kavallaris relishes her role of mentor and has supervised many Honours and PhD students, several of whom have gone on to become research leaders.

“A major reward of the job is being able to train, teach and mentor the next generation of research scientists – their enthusiasm and excitement when they discover something new is priceless.”

In making its recommendation the judging panel acknowledged Maria’s extraordinary contribution.

“Professor Maria Kavallaris is an exceptional cancer research leader, innovator, mentor and role model who has made seminal discoveries on mechanisms of clinical drug resistance and tumour aggressiveness in childhood and adult cancers. She has made outstanding contributions to NSW and Australia via highly influential medical research advocacy and mentoring the next generation of Australian cancer research leaders.”

The Royal Society of New South Wales is a learned society based in Sydney, Australia. It is the oldest learned society in the Southern Hemisphere, founded in 1821. The Society's mission is to encourage "studies and investigations in Science, Art, Literature and Philosophy". 

The Society has a long and distinguished history of supporting research and innovation in Australia. It has been instrumental in the development of many scientific disciplines, including astronomy, geology, and meteorology. The Society has also played a significant role in promoting public understanding of science. Professor Kavallaris was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 2019.