Like many scientists, a fascination with what we don’t know led Professor Jenny Byrne to choose a career in research,
“It seemed like the only option, and it still does” she says.
A molecular oncology professor, Byrne’s passion for biobanking has seen her transition from lab researcher to Director of Biobanking for NSW Health Pathology and focus her efforts on investigating the contribution made to research by human tissue biobanks.
Prof Byrne is not only a leader in the biobanking field, but also a prominent figure in the world of science publishing. Her remarkable work in exposing fraudulent academic manuscripts was recognised with a 2017 listing in Nature’s 10 – the renowned journal’s annual list of the 10 people who mattered most in science.
Jenny’s particular interest in the networking of biobanks at a national level led to her early and ongoing involvement with BCBA. Asked about her continuing commitment to the Consortium’s work she said,
"It’s so important that biobanks and researchers can talk with each other – and it’s great to work with a group with a national vision for both brain cancer research and biobank support of research.”
“Getting paid to read, write and think” – is the best part of her job according to oneofAustralia’s leading researchers in bioethics and long-time BCBA Steering Committee member, A/Prof Wendy Lipworth.
Starting out in medicine before switching to bioethics, Lipworth has built a successful program of research at the University of Sydney. Her work, with its particular focus on biomedical and health technology innovation, has been cited in more than 1500 publications worldwide.
Her co-authored book, Medical Professionals: Conflicts and Quandaries in Medical Practice, highlights the challenges facing today’s medical professionals as they strive to make sense of the changing landscape within healthcare.
“We’re very lucky”, says BCBA Founder/Director Robyn Leonard, “Wendy is always on hand to provide advice. Her expertise has been invaluable to the Consortium these past 6 years”.
Lipworth describes the most rewarding thing about being involved with BCBA as,
“Seeing such dedicated people working tirelessly towards a goal and being able to bring my understanding of ethics to that cause”.
Organoids - they’re known as the ‘crash-test dummies’ of the research world – tiny replica organs derived from human stem cells and created in a lab dish.
BCBA consortium member and Head of the Tissue Architecture and Organ Function Laboratory at South Australia’s Centre for Cancer Biology, Dr Guillermo Gomez, is using this organoid technology as part of his lab’s novel approach to accelerating precision medicine in brain cancer – developing treatments that are targeted to individual patients according to the genomic makeup of their tumour.
“Working with samples derived from patients brings our research findings closer to translation into the clinic” he says. “This possibility is different from the past, as research models did not replicate all the details of humans' brain cancer disease”.
Gomez was drawn to the work of BCBA through the Consortium’s efforts to provide labs like his with access to the number and type of tissue samples needed to drive research. Commenting on his involvement with BCBA, Guillermo says,
“I see this as a valuable resource for brain cancer research in Australia. These efforts are precious now as we have entered the Big Data era, and we hope it serves to bring solutions to people affected by brain cancer”.
BCBA Steering Committee member, Professor Hui Gan has created and led one of the few Australian trials for patients with relapsed low and intermediate grade brain tumours. The LUMOS trial fills the void for people with these universally fatal gliomas who would otherwise have almost no access to clinical trials. But amazingly, Professor Gan doesn’t rate this achievement as his biggest contribution;
“I actually think that my biggest contribution to date has been being part of, and helping to extend, the number of people actually focused on improving outcomes for brain tumour patients and helping create collaborations between people and groups,” he said.
It’s this passion for collaboration that led him to join BCBA, bringing with him the drive to improve patient outcomes through clinical trials and translational research,
“It’s the feeling of being part of a group that is always selflessly looking out for what the neuro-oncology community needs and then pursuing that fearlessly”.
BCBA consortium member, Associate Professor David Ziegler has big plans for 2021. The paediatric oncologist at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, is expanding the Zero Childhood Cancer program, with the aim to offer complete tumour sequencing for every childhood brain cancer patient in the country. The program has so far identified the genetic basis of a child’s cancer in more than 90 per cent of cases, giving 70 per cent of participants at least one new potential treatment option.
Ziegler has been spearheading the program since it began with a local pilot in 2016. His interest in paediatric oncology was sparked early in his career, and he continues to be motivated by seeing his patients respond to a new treatment his team has developed.
David was drawn to commitment of the BCBA to inspire the best research and build productive networks,
“What I love about BCBA is that no problem is too large and nothing is impossible – obstacles are viewed as challenges that must be overcome and the focus is always on the endgame and the patients who need the investment of research and discovery”.
Against all the odds the Bike Ride for Brain Cancer (BRBC) went ahead on 19th and 20th March, with a dedicated group of 56 riders managing to complete 100kms of the 250km course despite the extreme weather conditions in NSW. The BRBC is the major fundraising event of BCBA’s charity arm, the Brain Cancer Collective. After being Covided out in 2020, the riders were more than ready to hit the road in 2021 to raise awareness of brain cancer and approximately $300,000 in funds to support the important work of BCBA.
The spirit of the event is captured in this short video.
The experience of working behind the scenes in the laboratory and face to face treating people with cancer has given Dr Ben Kong a strong drive to improve outcomes. It’s his connection to keeping the patient at the forefront that drew him to join BCBA as a consortium member,
“BCBA has a uniquely patient-centred mission which helps all those who are involved to stay focussed on the long-term vision”.
A medical oncologist at Royal North Shore Hospital & Mater Hospital Sydney and Clinical Research Fellow for the Neuro-Oncology Co-operative Trials Group (COGNO), Ben found BCBA’s role in facilitating collaboration helped him expand his horizons and connect with other researchers determined to improve outcomes for people with brain cancer.
Ben’s determination to expand his horizons has recently become literal – he is taking to the open road to cycle 250km from Sydney to the Hunter Valley as part of the annual Bike Ride for Brain Cancer next month. He will share the road with local and interstate riders, raising funds to accelerate brain cancer research.
You can support Ben's ride here.
BCBA Steering Committee member and neuropathologist, Dr Winny Varikatt, has been the driving force behind the establishment of brain cancer biobanking at Westmead. Dr Varikatt is the Senior Staff Specialist at Westmead’s Institute of Clinical Pathology & Medical Research. Her desire to become a neuropathologist and to do something to improve the treatment and outcomes of brain tumour sufferers was driven by a personal loss, and in her words, if you want to make a difference:
‘Tumour Banking is a good place to start. To make fresh tumour tissue available to researchers and one day be able to find targetable mutations that can improve the outcome of brain tumour sufferers.’
Dr Varikatt and her team recently received a $100,000 NSW Health Biospecimen Collection Grant - a major boost for this fledging brain cancer biobanking operation.
We are proud to have Winny Varikatt as part of our Consortium. BCBA was established and is run by a group of individuals who have a similar vision – collaborating to advance brain cancer research across Australia.
This month our consortium member profile includes our congratulations to Anna Nowak on her recent appointment as Pro Vice Chancellor Health and Medical Research, University of Western Australia. Anna is a leading oncologist, clinical trialist and translational researcher in the fields of neuro-oncology and mesothelioma. Named West Australian Cancer Researcher of the Year in 2018, she is also Director of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases. As a custodian of a brain cancer biobank, Anna was involved in the first BCBA meeting. She is passionate about engaging in a consumer-led research agenda and working with the committed group of clinicians and researchers who make up the BCBA Consortium. In her words,
Thank you to all our collaborators and supporters – it has been a challenging year, but BCBA has made great strides in our commitment to supporting brain cancer research and patient care. We look forward to continuing our important work in 2021.
Very best wishes to all for a very Happy Christmas and a Joyful New Year.
Congratulations to A/Prof Wendy Lipworth and Prof John Simes – both recently recognised for their outstanding contributions to research. Wendy was named Australia’s leading researcher in bioethics in the recent The Australian Special Edition: Research, and John has been listed in the world’s top 2% of most cited researchers in their fields in the flagship life sciences journal – PLOS Biology. BCBA has been fortunate to have benefited from their invaluable support from Day 1 and we look forward to their involvement continuing well into the future.
At the recent Consortium Meeting, Prof Michael Besser, BCBA Chair since inception in 2015, formally announced his retirement, handing over the baton to Chair Elect A/Prof Lindy Jeffree with the words,
“Lindy I remember publishing a paper with you exactly 20 years ago! We are very lucky to have such a multi-talented and committed person taking the lead at BCBA. I firmly believe that every organization needs and benefits from change and look forward to watching BCBA continue to develop and grow with you at the helm.”
Michael was thanked for his incredible dedication to building and expanding BCBA operations over the past 6 years. Happily, he will be continuing his longtime support for BCBA as a Consortium Member and remain as Board Chair of our charity arm, the Brain Cancer Collective.
This month we profile BCBA’s staunch supporter from day 1 - Prof Michael Besser AM – Chair of both the BCBA Consortium and our charity arm, the Brain Cancer Collective. Michael is an emeritus consultant neurosurgeon at RPA and Sydney Children's Hospitals, and a clinical professor at the University of Sydney where he teaches neuroanatomy. He is the former Head of the Department of Neurosurgery at RPA, Chair of the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences and the Neurosurgical Board, President Neurosurgical Society of Australasia and Examiner in Neurosurgery RACS.
Away from the operating theatre and lecture halls, he's also made a name for himself in the sporting arena, representing Australia at eight triathlon world championships, as well as ironman events. So of course Michael is always first to saddle up for our fundraising Bike Ride for Brain Cancer. He'll be on his bike again next March to raise funds and take part in our 3rd Sydney to Hunter Valley event – proudly wearing the legend jersey he was awarded in 2019 as the oldest rider on the road.
Michael is a legend both on and off the bike, passionate about improving patient care and finding a curative treatment for brain cancer, he was honoured with the Order of Australia in 2001 for his services to medicine.
Brain Cancer 2021: Concepts to Cure is the theme of the 13th Cooperative Trials Group for Neuro-Oncology (COGNO) Annual Scientific Meeting. The event will be held virtually between Sunday 24th October and Tuesday 26th October 2021.
For more information, please visit the official website.
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