One of the first thing visitors notice when they visit Professor Maria Kavallaris’s office is the painting of a giant manta ray.
Unusual decor perhaps but Maria’s love of marine life is clear to anyone who works with her. Her research team are used to seeing images flash up on the meeting room screen of masses of fish, tiny shrimp and colourful corals taken with her underwater camera on diving trips. But it’s Maria’s love of science and her success as a research leader that’s making us proud this week at Children’s Cancer Institute with her recent election as a Fellow of the prestigious Australian Academy of the Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS).
At a dinner in Brisbane last week, Maria was inducted as a Fellow by AAHMS President and cancer vaccine developer Professor Ian Frazer. She was elected by her peers for leadership role in cancer nanomedicine and her considerable and wide-ranging contributions to advocating for health and medical research.
Maria sees the her new role as Fellow as an opportunity to participate at a higher level toward influencing and informing government policy in health and medical research.
“I’m honoured to be elected by my peers and I’m looking forward to contributing to the Academy”, she said.
Maria and her team have made critically important discoveries on how cancers become resistant to chemotherapy drugs, and especially her world-leading work on microtubules – tiny, cable-like proteins in the cell that do multiple jobs including helping cells divide, and their role in drug resistance. Research into microtubule destabilising protein stathmin, for example, showed its unexpected role in the spread of aggressive childhood cancer neuroblastoma. The finding has opened the way to develop future therapies specifically targeting the protein. Discoveries like this have resulted in patents and industry partnerships to develop new cancer therapies.
Maria is a founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at UNSW where she leads a team exploring ways of precisely targeting tumours with chemotherapeutics or gene silencing material, making them less toxic to normal tissue. She designed and characterised nanoparticles that bind and deliver gene-silencing RNA (siRNA) to switch off specific cancer genes. Recent collaborative work by her group on a new way of delivering drugs for pancreatic cancer could lead to future treatments for this most aggressive adult cancer.
Leadership and innovation
The AAHMS Fellowship is a tribute to Maria’s outstanding leadership in medical research advocacy, peer review, mentoring and advanced research policy. She is an advocate for innovation and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In August, Maria was a keynote speaker at the Women in STEM Leadership Summit in Sydney. And last year she was acknowledged as a Knowledge Nation Top 100 recipient and one of AFR/Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence, both in the innovation category.
Back in the labs, Maria leads the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at Children’s Cancer Institute where she’s worked since 1984. In that time, huge strides have been made in improving childhood cancer survival but, with some aggressive types of cancer still resistant to even the most-intensive treatment, there’s more work to do and oceans of opportunity to do it.