Sparking innovation in cancer research

By Jane Allman
Thursday, 14 October, 2021

Sparking innovation in cancer research

After completing his training as a clinician, Professor Mark Dawson was frustrated that, when it came to treating cancer, many questions remained unanswered. Why was it that two people of similar age, with the same cancer — which looked identical under a microscope — and given the same treatment, had such different treatment outcomes — with one responding well and another poorly?

The desire to find answers to questions such as these led Professor Dawson to pursue a scholarship with the General Sir John Monash Foundation — an organisation established to support exceptional Australian students with postgraduate scholarships to study overseas. The program aims to foster leadership, expertise and international networks, and build Australia’s capabilities for the future. The scholarship took Professor Dawson to the UK’s Cambridge University to study a PhD in epigenetics and work towards expanding the understanding of different cancers and new approaches to treat them.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Sir John Monash Foundation,” Professor Dawson said. “The scholarship gave me the opportunity to go anywhere in the world, to learn from and work with the best people, and pursue my career.”

Professor Dawson explained that current approaches to cancer treatment revolve around five pillars: surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, radiotherapy and immunotherapy — the newest and most promising therapy that can leverage our own immune system to fight cancer cells.

“In recent years our knowledge of this disease has grown — we have a better understanding of what mutations exist and how they drive specific cancers. Exploring the specialised functions of certain cells has enabled us to develop more targeted therapies. Asking questions and searching for answers is what drives scientific discoveries forward.”

Currently based at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Melbourne Centre for Cancer Research, Professor Dawson runs a group of 26 researchers trained in cancer epigenetics. He also co-leads the Cancer Biology and Therapy Program, which operates 13 different labs.

“The lab uses curiosity-driven science to make discoveries that will inform better therapies,” Professor Dawson said.

“We need curiosity to innovate and move forward.”

Professor Dawson’s research has identified novel therapeutic strategies for several cancers and has helped to establish clinical trials with epigenetic therapies.

Researchers in Professor Dawson’s laboratory are working to develop a molecular understanding of the role that epigenetic regulators play in the initiation and maintenance of cancer and discover the mechanisms by which malignancies evade therapeutic pressure. The hope is that these findings will translate into personalised approaches that advance clinical care.

The diverse research team of clinicians and scientists has broad expertise spanning biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, genomics, chemical biology, immunology, animal models of disease and bioinformatics. This multidisciplinary approach is considered critical in pursuing curiosity-driven innovations in cancer care.

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