2021 Cancer Council WA Postdoctoral Research Fellowships

Postdoctoral Research Fellowships give support for cancer researchers in the early stages of their career, providing improved career stability and encouraging the best and brightest young researchers to continue in the discipline of cancer research. These fellowships provide funding over a period of three years.

See the full list of 2021 recipients:

Project title: Predicting liver cancer before its appearance to improve detection of individuals at high risk
Lead researcher: Dr Rodrigo Carlessi
Institution: Curtin University
Project description:

Liver cancer causes about 10 per cent of all cancer-related deaths globally; and in Australia, it is the fastest increasing cause of cancer death. A screening program for early detection of liver cancer does not exist in Australia. Due to lack of so-called biomarkers that can be used to identify people at high-risk, patients are generally diagnosed with the disease at advanced stages, where treatment options are extremely limited.

After developing a new analytical platform that involves acquisition of large amounts of biological information from thousands of liver cells with unprecedented levels of detail, the aim is to identify molecular signatures that can predict liver cancer before it develops.

It is important to predict cancer as early as possible as liver health can be restored before the damage becomes permanent and catastrophic. Early detection will improve survival and quality of life, as seen with other cancer types for which screening programs are in place.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $75,000 in 2021 ($225,000 total for 2021-2023)
Supported by: Friends of Cancer Council WA & Leah Jane Cohen Research Fund


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Project title: Prognostic significance of physical activity and sedentary behaviour in people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer
Lead researcher: A/Prof Vinicius Cavalheri De Oliveira
Institution: Curtin University
Project description:

Globally, lung cancer has the highest number of deaths per year compared to all other cancers. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the main type, making up about 85 per cent of all lung cancer. At diagnosis, almost 70 per cent of patients have an advanced form of the disease and unfortunately, only 1-8 per cent of patients are alive five years post-diagnosis.

Due to symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath, people with advanced NSCLC report adopting a sedentary lifestyle. In people with breast cancer, diabetes, heart or lung disease, time spent being physically active during the day is linked with longer survival, whereas prolonged time spent sedentary during the day is linked with shorter survival. Although prolonging survival is the main goal of treatments for people with advanced NSCLC, studies in these people have not yet investigated the link between time spent either physically active or sedentary during the day and survival. So, the aim of this study is to investigate if time spent in physically active or sedentary during the day predicts survival in people with
advanced NSCLC.

The intention is to recruit people diagnosed with advanced NSCLC and ask them to wear a physical activity monitor 24 hours per day for seven days in a row. This monitor will show the amount of time people spent physically active and the amount of time they spent sedentary during those seven days. After these assessments, the team will keep track of them for one year. Of note, exercise training will not be offered as part of this proposed study. The number of deaths during that one year will be recorded, and the team will investigate any links between the times spent being physically active or sedentary during the day with survival.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $7,500 in 2021 ($217,500 total for 2017-2021)
Supported by: Friends of Cancer Council WA


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Project title: Cracking the code to successful cancer immunotherapy
Lead researcher: Dr Jonathan Chee
Institution: The University of Western Australia
Project description:

Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos that develops in the lining of the lungs. Australia has one of the highest incidences of mesothelioma in the world. The prognosis is very poor, with five year survival rates of only 3 per cent for men, and 12 per cent for women.

Immunotherapy is an exciting treatment for mesothelioma. It works exceptionally well for some cancer patients, but there are side effects, and it is expensive. We want to be able to tell before treatment begins which patients will benefit and predict and prevent any bad reactions. Every person has a unique immune system and we can define features of that system like fingerprints. But these fingerprints change with time and wellness. Our study will map the changes associated with successful immunotherapy to see if we can predict therapy outcome.

The benefit of this study is that it will allow us to find out early in a treatment plan if that plan is working so that it can be altered if it is not.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $75,000 in 2021 (total $225,000 for 2019-2021)
Supported by: Marian and Don Byfield


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Project title: Developing new therapies for cancer and identifying biological markers that predict successful cancer therapy
Lead researcher: Dr Alison McDonnell
Institution: The University of Western Australia
Project description:

There is an urgent need to improve outcomes for patients with advanced solid cancers, including mesothelioma and melanoma. Immunotherpay has revolutionised the treatment of cancer by unleashing the immune system to attack tumours. However, not all patients benefit from treatment and there are side effects. This research aims to identify which patients will benefit most from these treatments, and develop new drugs for those patients who do not respond to current therapies.

T cells are specialised cells of the immune system that recognise and kill cancer cells. The team will examine how T cells become activated to kill cancer cells, which activation mechanisms correlate with improved survival, and explore new ways to ‘arm' T cells for improved cancer killing ability. This will allow us to better predict which patients will benefit most from treatment and identify new ways of boosting the cancer killing ability of T cells for more effective treatment of mesothelioma, melanoma and solid cancers.

Funding from Cancer Council WA: $75,000 in 2021 (total $212,564 for 2020-2022)
Supported by: Jill Tilly


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