Tumour Biology and Targeting

We want to understand the molecular causes of cancer so we can effectively target tumours using nanomedicine.

Group Leader

What we do

While cancer therapies have become more effective at killing cancer cells, most children treated for cancer suffer significant side effects. Two thirds of survivors experience serious health issues as adults – such as heart conditions, impaired fertility, metabolic disorders, secondary cancers – all caused by the cancer treatment that saved their life.

In most cases, toxic drugs that flood the entire body are a treating clinician’s only option. If we can better understand the specific molecular causes of cancer in a child, we can target these with more effective treatments. In doing so, we can increase survival rates at the same time as improving long term quality of life.

Our research objectives are to:

  • Investigate how cancer cells grow and survive.

  • Identify therapeutic targets for childhood cancers.

  • Develop nanomedicine drug delivery for cancer.

  • Investigate nano-based diagnostics and personalised medicine for childhood cancer.

  • Develop 3-dimensional multicellular models of childhood cancer for therapeutics and cancer biology.

Our funding includes grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council, Cancer Australia, Tour de Cure and Cancer Institute NSW.

Research projects

Identifying therapeutic targets for childhood cancers

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Contact: Prof Maria Kavallairsm.kavallaris@ccia.unsw.edu.au

Our laboratory leads international research in understanding how the cytoskeleton of cancer cells can cause cancer drug resistance. We identified microtubule proteins in the cytoskeleton that can make tumour cells resistant to specific chemotherapy drugs. We can make tumour cells more sensitive to chemotherapy when we ‘silence’ specific cytoskeletal genes using gene silencing tools and are identifying genes regulated by cytoskeletal proteins to explore future therapeutic targets.

The childhood cancer neuroblastoma is often diagnosed as advanced stage (metastatic) disease, by which time it is extremely difficult to cure. We were the first to discover that a protein called stathmin helps neuroblastoma cells to metastasise. We investigated the genetic signals responsible, to better understand the biology of the disease and develop new therapeutic approaches. We found a specific genetic change that drives the cancer cells’ spread and is found in aggressive neuroblastoma. We are now looking to see which therapies could target this genetic alteration.

Nanomedicine drug delivery for cancer

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Contact: Prof Maria Kavallaris, m.kavallaris@ccia.unsw.edu.au

Current treatment protocols for childhood cancer involve chemotherapy agents that are highly toxic and designed to kill all rapidly dividing cells in the body, including normal healthy cells. As a result, children being treated can experience severe side effects, and survivors can suffer lifelong health issues.

Nanomedicine is a new approach that involves designing biodegradable polymers − tiny molecules composed of repeating structural units − that can package and deliver therapeutic drugs or genetic material specifically to tumour cells while avoiding normal healthy cells. We work with research chemists at the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine and international collaborators to develop nanomedicines for difficult-to-treat and aggressive cancers. We are developing and evaluating nanoparticles that can deliver either gene-silencing material or chemotherapy to tumour cells.

Our laboratory studies with Team Leader, A/Prof Josh McCarroll, show that our ‘Star nanoparticles’ can deliver gene silencing material to a number of cancer types to silence gene expression that drives cancer growth. When these genes are switched off using our Star nanoparticle delivery system, the cancer cells stop growing and die. We are extending these studies to several aggressive childhood cancers.

Nano-based diagnostics for cancer

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Identifying the right treatment for the right patient remains a major clinical challenge. So why is this important? Current treatments have been developed empirically through clinical trials. While many children benefit from this approach, approximately 30% fail their treatment, and these children have a high likelihood of dying from their disease.  In collaboration with the Zero Childhood Cancer Program, we are developing avatar models of patient tumours being grown in the laboratory to identify the best treatment for patients. Along with our collaborators, we have pioneered the development of a 3D-bioprinter that can print mini-tumours in a dish in a high-throughput format, so that large numbers of drugs can be screened simultaneously to identify the most effective treatment for individual patients.


Scientia Research Fellow

Executive Assistant

Audrey Kraft

Senior Research Officers

Dr MoonSun Jung

Dr Friederike Mansfeld

Research Officers

Dr Simon Brayford

Dr Estrella Gonzales-Aloy

Dr Ernesto Moles

Dr Alastair Duly

Senior Research Assistant

Kathleen Kimpton

Research Assistants

Joanna Skhinas

Honours Student

Bo Wei Ou

PhD Students

Aria Ahmed-Cox

Amy Logan

Zerong (Shirley) Ma

Alexis Minchaca-Acosta

Georgia Porter

Get in touch

Do you have a question about our work? For any enquiries please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Your donation will fund research that will save young lives!