When there are mutations in genes, things can go wrong. Cells can start to multiply uncontrollably, and the result is cancer. The new science of genomics lifts the lid on cancer cells and allows us to read the code of the genes. This provides us with a new way to understand cancer, by understanding how the mutations in the genes drive the disease.

Our Group models and studies the genetic changes in the tumours of children on the Zero Childhood Cancer clinical trial. The goal is to understand how these altered genes cause cancer, and how new therapies can specifically target how altered genes function. We strongly believe that a detailed understanding of how gene changes cause cancer is the key to more effective, less toxic therapies. We work closely with the Computational Biology Group, who are the experts in the analysis of the cancer cells’ genomes. Together, we discover the unique features in childhood cancer cells and decipher how they function.

Our research aims are:

  • The genomic analysis of samples from children enrolled on the Zero Childhood Cancer clinical trial, to identify the best treatment options.
  • Investigating novel findings in the lab, arising from the genomic analysis of children enrolled on the Zero Childhood Cancer trial. We use the molecular biology toolkit to probe the function of mutated genes, and how they might be more effectively targeted by treatments.
  • We develop models of paediatric cancers to explore the molecular pathways that are altered in cancer. This is a major way we can identify potential new therapeutic options.
    • Identifying new therapeutic targets in high-risk childhood cancer


      This project will explore the molecular biology and therapeutic targeting of genomic discoveries from the Zero Childhood Cancer patient cohort. This will involve the development of models to investigate the functional molecular consequences of the genetic changes found in patients, and to determine how they might best be therapeutically targeted.

    • Liquid biopsy for solid tumours


      Invasive procedures such as surgery or bone marrow aspiration are usually required to obtain cancer samples. However a new technique, called liquid biopsy, is offering a minimally-invasive alternative. Cancer cells shed DNA into the blood stream, and thanks to advances in the sensitivity of testing methods, many types of cancers can now be detected and analysed in a blood sample.

      In collaboration with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, this project will establish a liquid biopsy method for childhood solid tumours. The aim is to detect low levels of cancer cells still present in a patient after treatment – so-called ‘minimal residual disease’ (MRD).

      MRD testing is routine for children with the most common blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), and has been used for many years to inform future treatment. As a result, the survival rate of children with aggressive ALL has doubled. By establishing a similar technique to detect MRD in patients with solid tumours such as neuroblastoma, we hope to improve the outcomes of children with the most aggressive forms of these cancers.

    • Immune profiling of high-risk childhood cancers


      New therapies that seek to activate a patient’s own immune system to target their cancer are now providing, after many years of research, some of the most promising avenues for treatment of cancers that have previously been unresponsive to standard therapy. However, much needs to be done to understand how the immune system interacts with cancer cells in children. This project will define the immune profile of tumour samples from the Zero Childhood Cancer program. The goal is to determine which children can benefit most from new immune therapies. This work is a close collaboration with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

    • Sequencing childhood leukaemia


      The Childhood Leukemia Sequencing Project is an ongoing collaboration between Children’s Cancer Institute, the Murdoch Institute, and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Staff List


Associate Professor Paul Ekert

Senior Scientist

Dr Emmy Fleuren

Research Officers

Dr Lauren Brown

Dr Rachael Terry

Research Assistant

Ashleigh Fordham