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Professor Michelle Haber chatting with MC Adam Spencer after collecting her award for Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year

2014 NSW Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year Announced

Female researchers and children’s cancer are the big winners at the 2014 Premier’s Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research. The state’s top honour for cancer research has been awarded this evening to renowned children’s cancer specialist Professor Michelle Haber AM.

[Professor Haber's] work on personalised medicine is not only changing how we treat cancers across the spectrum but also how children's medical research is looked at across many disciplines.
CEO and Chief Cancer Officer

The Cancer Institute NSW Premier's Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research is an annual event that celebrates excellence and innovation in cancer research. Seven awards were presented tonight to those leading the way in their field.

Health Minister Jillian Skinner, who represented NSW Premier Mike Baird at the event, presented the Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year Award to Professor Haber.

"Professor Haber is internationally recognised for her world-class research into improving treatment for children diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia," Mrs Skinner said.

"Her research is changing the lives of many children diagnosed with cancer. Her work on personalised medicine is not only changing how we treat cancers across the spectrum but also how children's medical research is looked at across many disciplines.

"In presenting Professor Haber with this award we are recognising her vital work with the Children's Cancer Institute and the Kids Cancer Alliance Translational Research Centre, which is delivering real advances in the treatment of childhood cancers.

"Each year, more than 600 Australian children are diagnosed with cancer. Due to the dedication of researchers and clinicians, eight out of 10 of these children will survive their cancer and go on to live a full and fun life."

It was a big night for women in cancer research with female researchers accepting five of the seven awards handed out.

"There is a wealth of outstanding and dedicated talent in NSW and events like this shine a bright light on the future directions of cancer research in this state," Mrs Skinner said.

"The NSW Government is committed to building the state's cancer research capacity to help attract and retain the calibre of researchers we are celebrating at this event.

 "Supporting innovation in cancer care is critical, which is why the NSW Government invests over $200 million annually in medical research to pursue best outcomes for patients and first-class support for researchers."

 NSW Premier Mike Baird said $34 million was allocated in this year's NSW Budget for the Cancer Institute NSW to support and manage cancer research programs, including translational research, clinical trials and career support for cancer researchers across the state.

"Research is at the heart of unlocking more effective treatments for cancer and the NSW Government is committed to supporting the state's cancer research," Premier Baird said.

"I congratulate Professor Michelle Haber and others on the honours given to them tonight.

"I have no greater admiration than for researchers like Professor Haber, whose work is not just transforming lives but also saving them."

Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of the Cancer Institute NSW Professor David Currow said the state's cancer researchers are among the best in the world.

"The work of our researchers is testament to their collaboration and dedication, as they discover new insights, novel therapies and, ultimately treatments, that will improve the lives of people affected by cancer.

"When we look at the achievements of those represented among tonight's winners, it is clear how important it is that we continue to invest in cancer research so we continue to attract to NSW the finest research minds." 

The winners of the 2014 Premier's Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research

The 2014 winners

Outstanding Cancer Researcher of the Year ($50,000)

Professor Michelle Haber AM

Professor Haber is Executive Director of the Children's Cancer Institute and is internationally recognised for her world-class research into improving treatment for neuroblastoma and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children.

She and her team work towards more effective treatments for childhood cancers by identifying what drives the growth and development of cancer in children, developing new drugs and combining existing and new drug treatments into novel therapies that are rapidly translated into national and international clinical trials.

Professor Haber has taken her research to the next level by developing a robust drug discovery program. Her approach to personalised medicine for children with cancer is at the international forefront. 

The Professor Rob Sutherland AO Make a Difference Award ($20,000)

Professor Michael Friedlander

Professor Michael Friedlander is a conjoint Professor of Medicine at UNSW and the Director of Medical Oncology at the Prince of Wales Hospital. Many of the hundreds of clinical trials Professor Friedlander has led have resulted in significant improvements in the lives and wellbeing of people with cancer.

The impact of Professor Friedlander's work is evidenced in more than 250 research publications and his facilitation of the enrolment of over 1000 people in clinical trials throughout his career has often provided access to life extending treatments for these patients. Much global advancement in the treatment of breast, gynaecological and testicular cancer can be attributed to Professor Friedlander's work.

Professor Friedlander has also championed the important role that patient reported outcomes can have in determining the effectiveness of treatments, which often goes unrecognised in clinical trials focused solely on measures of long-term survival.
Big Data, Big Impact Grant Stage 2($149,947)

Dr Jason Wong, Dr Luke Hesson, A/Professor John Pimanda and Dr Joe Thurbon

This team were awarded the inaugural Big Data, Big Impact grant at the 2013 Premier's Awards for Outstanding Cancer Research. This year, they will be awarded Stage 2 funding after a successful Stage 1 spent going where no cancer researchers have gone before.

It has long been understood that mutations that directly alter protein function are associated with cancer, yet regions of that code for proteins make up less than two percent of the human genome. The previously unexplored 'dark matter' portion of the genome makes up the rest. The team set out exploring this 'dark matter' to understand its role in causing cancer.

With the premise that mutations in the 'dark matter' of the human genome are a frequent event that can lead to cancer, the team commenced their research by analysing over 100 terabytes of publically available data. This identified recurrent mutations at key functional non-coding regions in cancer.

Stage 2 of the project will examine the extent these mutations are present. Identification of these mutations will not only provide a better understanding of cancer biology, but can immediately provide new ways to personalise therapy for cancer patients. In the longer term, it may also allow novel drug treatments to be developed for cancer.
Excellence in Translational Cancer Research ($20,000)

Multidisciplinary team from:

  • Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI)
  • EnGeneIC Ltd
  • Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
  • Strathfield Private Hospital
  • Royal North Shore Hospital
  • Concord Repatriation General Hospital

A multidisciplinary team of scientists, clinicians and biotech experts from six organisations investigating malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), used tumour samples stored in the ADRI mesothelioma biobank, one of Australia's largest repositories of tumour samples, to identify a consistent change in how a particular family of genes work in MPM that, when corrected, stops the cancer cells growing. This research was rapidly brought to clinical trial stage, in less than three years.

The MesomiR-1 trial is the first to focus on MPM and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC), for which few treatment options exist. The trial represents a new approach to therapy for these cancers.
The Wildfire Award ($20,000)

A/Professor Georgina Long

Associate Professor Georgina Long is a clinical researcher and Medical Oncologist at Melanoma Institute Australia and the University of Sydney. The publication that won A/Professor Long this award (Prognostic and clinicopathologic associations of oncogenic BRAF in metastatic melanoma) was published in top-ranked cancer journal, the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study showed that the presence of a BRAF gene mutation was strongly associated with poorer survival for melanoma that has spread, and that BRAF inhibitors improve survival. These results ensured that all patients who might benefit from this treatment were included in the development and clinical trials of BRAF inhibitors (the only PBS listed targeted therapy for melanoma now currently available).
Innovation in Cancer Clinical Trials ($20,000)

Haematology Clinical Research Network

The Haematology Clinical Research Network (HCRN) looked into the reasons why patients with haematological cancers were not being referred to clinical trials.

They discovered long-held assumptions that patients do not want to travel, that haematologists do not want to refer their patients to other hospitals, and that referring patients was too cumbersome and time consuming. Setting about discovering a way to break down these barriers and increase patient access to clinical trials, HCRN developed a smartphone app that puts clinical trials information at the fingertips of clinicians and patients.
Outstanding Cancer Research Fellow of the Year ($20,000)

Dr Claire Wakefield

Despite the profound impact of childhood cancer on families, few programs meet the needs of the family in the context of childhood cancer. Dr Wakefield's program will prevent and manage the impact of paediatric cancer on families by focussing on cancer-related genetic testing in children, new technologies, and ways to improve the mental and physical health of children at risk.

The 'Rising Star' PhD Award ($10,000)

Ursula Sansom-Daly

Ursula Sansom-Daly has undertaken a program of PhD research that is pioneering the field of adolescent and young adult (AYA) psycho-oncology in Australia. Early in her doctoral research, Ms Sansom-Daly developed a new tool to teach coping skills to AYAs with cancer, delivered using videoconferencing. Despite only submitting her PhD in March 2014, Ms Sansom-Daly has published 14 articles in international, peer-reviewed journals. 

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