Fighting childhood cancer with nanotechnology
When she was 21, Maria Kavallaris found herself juggling her uni studies with treatment after being diagnosed with cancer. Today, she’s a world-leading scientist at the forefront of using nanotechnology to help children with the disease.
Professor Maria Kavallaris AM
Bachelor of Applied Science (Biomedical), 1989
Director, Australian Centre for NanoMedicine
Professor and Head of Tumour Biology and Targeting program, Children’s Cancer Institute
The problem with chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, says Professor Maria Kavallaris AM, is that they’re a kind of “bucket chemistry” — effective, but imprecise.
“The drugs are toxic, that’s why they work on cancer,” she says. “Cancer cells tend to be more rapidly dividing and more vulnerable to being killed but, as a consequence, normal cells that also need to divide regularly get badly damaged too.”
For patients, this means hair loss, a suppressed immune system and, possibly, lifelong side effects.
Kavallaris has personal experience of this ‘collateral damage’, having been diagnosed with cancer at 21. Not one to give up, she juggled treatment with her undergraduate studies and work as a laboratory technician at the Children’s Cancer Institute.
Some 35 years later, she remains at the institute, where she oversees a team of 24 researchers and works on a range of projects, from looking at the causes of tumour growth to drug resistance.
An expert in cancer nanomedicine, Kavallaris has also been investigating new delivery methods for anti-cancer treatments, including drugs that would directly target tumour cells, sparing healthy ones. Her work so far has attracted an incredible $45 million in funding.
When you’re doing research, you have to anticipate that 95 per cent of what you do is not going to work out the way you thought it would. You’ve got to have vision and love problem-solving.
But Kavallaris is most proud of co-founding the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine in 2011. Since then, the interdisciplinary team has grown to more than 130 chemists, engineers, scientists, oncologists and clinicians, and has changed the way this kind of work is done in Australia.
“At the time, engineers and chemists were creating these clever things then saying to us, ‘Oh, we think you could use it for cancer,’” she says.
Her team would run tests but the product often didn’t satisfy basic standards, such as toxicity testing.
“It’s not because they hadn’t created something fantastic,” says Kavallaris, “but because they were designing things then saying to us, ‘Can you fit it in your system?’ Our vision was to tackle nanomedicine from a disease perspective: to start with the problem and work backwards.”
Professor Maria Kavallaris AM is the recipient of the 2019 UTS Alumni Award for Excellence in Science and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence.
ROLE MODEL: “Professor Susan Band Horwitz, the biochemist behind cancer drug Taxol”
SECRET SKILL: Underwater photography. “It’s always been a hobby. When I’m in my eighties, they’re going to have to cart me to the water in a wheelchair.”
Q&A: Maria on leading positive change
What’s been one of the biggest challenges of your career?
“Early on, a lot of people still saw me as a laboratory technician, rather than someone who’d finished a PhD. In the end, I realised I just had to prove to myself that I was capable.”
Are you seeing more women in the field these days?
“It’s getting better but we still have a long way to go. I chair international conferences and we aim for 50 per cent representation; sometimes we reach it, sometimes we don’t.”
What advice do you have for science graduates?
“When you’re doing research, you have to anticipate that 95 per cent of what you do is not going to work out the way you thought it would. Some of the work I’m doing now, I started in my postdoc studies 23 years ago. You’ve got to have vision and love problem-solving.”