It's Sarcoma Awareness Month! We recently sat down with Dr Rachael Zemek, Cancer Council WA's 2020 Early Career Cancer Researcher of the Year and a 2021 Cancer Council WA Collaborative Cancer Grant recipient, to talk about her research into improving immune therapies for sarcoma.
Tell us a bit about your role as a researcher and what are you currently researching?
I completed my PhD in 2019, specialising in improving immune therapies for cancer. I currently work at the Telethon Kids Cancer Centre, researching a cancer called sarcoma, particularly soft-tissue sarcomas, which are a group of cancers that arise from connective tissue, muscle or fat.
What inspired you to research cancer, specifically sarcoma?
I wanted to help people with immunological disorders (such as my little brother) and there is still a lot we don't understand about the immune system. A breakthrough in cancer research has been the use of treatments which help your immune cells fight cancer, called immunotherapy. Unfortunately, sarcoma rarely responds to immunotherapy, and better treatments are desperately needed. This is why I am determined to find better treatment options for patients with sarcoma of all ages. Thanks to Sock it to Sarcoma!, I was able to take on this challenge.
Have you had any recent discoveries/breakthroughs?
Sarcoma has a high relapse rate; even if the surgeon thinks they have removed all cancer, too often the cancer grows back, and when it does, the chances of beating cancer decrease. I have recently found that surgery itself triggers an immune response similar to the immune response required to kill cancer cells. My goal for 2021 is to figure out how to get these immune cells at the surgical site to kill any remaining cancer cells, therefore helping sarcoma patients beat cancer.
In 2020, you were awarded the Early Career Cancer Researcher of the Year and in 2021 you were awarded a Cancer Council WA Collaborative Cancer Grant. How has Cancer Council WA funding helped your career?
Being awarded Early Career Cancer Researcher of the Year was a great boost to my career, particularly in 2020 when some of my research plans were interrupted due to COVID-19. The prestige of a Cancer Council WA award helped me secure a Forrest Foundation Fellowship and the Cancer Council WA Collaborative Cancer Grant, which are allowing me to continue my research in WA. Cancer Council WA funding is enabling me to use the latest cutting-edge technologies for my research into sarcoma.
What do you aim to achieve within your research career?
I hope to see a shift away from traditional therapies, such as chemotherapy, towards immune therapies and targeted approaches. This is particularly important for sarcoma, which has seen little progress in improving treatment outcomes.
For more information
- To find out more about Sarcoma, please view our Understanding Soft Tissue Sarcoma Fact Sheet.
- To find out more about Dr Zemek's research project, or find out about other research we are funding, please visit our 2021 Successful cancer researchers and projects page.