Cancer research: hitting the mother lode
Young medical biochemist Dr Nikki Verrills has achieved an enormous amount in her relatively short career at the cutting-edge of blood cancer research.
Her new role as a mother has only added another layer to her determination to wipe cancer from the fatal diseases inventory.
Cradling her newborn daughter Amelie, Verrills said the birth of her first child had really brought home to her how personal her work can be.
"Improving the statistics on cancer research has very little meaning if it is your loved one being affected," she said.
"What we need to do is eradicate deaths caused by cancer.
"Cancer affects everyone – not only the patient but their family and friends as well. Hopefully, my work can help all of these people and really make a difference."
In collaboration with colleagues at the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia, Verrills’ research includes identifying the proteins that make certain leukaemia cells resistant to chemotherapy.
Even though screening was not yet 100 per cent accurate, Verrills said children could already be assessed for their response to standard chemotherapy at diagnosis and be put into one of two risk factor groups – those who will respond to standard chemotherapy and those who will not.
"What this means is children are given the specific treatment that is most likely to help them," she said.
"The whole medical experience can be very frightening for them, so minimising the clinical aspect is important.
"By using the initial screening process, we can ensure at diagnosis treatment is as effective and efficient as possible.
"This research will help us better understand how leukaemia cells become resistant to current drug treatments."
Ultimately Verrills, who is also a National Health and Medical Research Council Peter Doherty Fellow, hopes the research will achieve two things. Firstly, the identification of the altered proteins will enable all leukaemia patients – including adults – to be screened at diagnosis to see if they will respond to standard chemotherapy treatment. If screening indicates a resistance to the treatment, patients can immediately be given an alternative drug, eliminating a fruitless round of chemotherapy treatment.
The second aim of the research is to inform the development of new drugs for patients who are unresponsive to standard treatment.
Since 2006, Verrills’ research projects have broadened and focused on the role of a particular signalling protein, called PP2A, in breast cancer and leukaemia. The work has resulted in a three-year Cancer Council NSW grant, and a three-year Anthony Rothe Memorial Trust grant to research the effectiveness of a new class of chemotherapy drug.
In collaboration with researchers in Ohio, in the United States, she has been testing the effectiveness of PP2A re-activating drugs in models of chemotherapy-resistant leukaemia. The research has reached animal trial stage, with Verrills and her team confident a certain subset of leukaemias will be responsive to the trial.
"Ultimately, we hope our findings will lead to clinical trials of these new re-activating drugs and eventually improve survival rates for leukaemia sufferers."
While for the moment Verrills is relishing the time she is spending with her daughter, it is difficult to imagine such a talented researcher staying out of the lab for too long.
Last year, Dr Verrills received a Voiceless Eureka Prize for collaborative work with colleagues at the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia. The Prize recognises work that has reduced, or has the potential to reduce, the use of animals or animal products in laboratory-based research, education and testing. She also received an Australian Institute of Policy and Science Young Tall Poppy Award.
Dr Verrills undertakes her research in the University of Newcastle’s School of Biomedical Sciences in collaboration with the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s (HMRI) Cancer Research Program. Her research is supported by grants from the HMRI including sponsorship from Gallerie Fine Jewellery, the Stroud Rodeo and Mrs Jennie Thomas.