Garvan PhD student Emily Colvin
27 May 2009
Garvan PhD student Emily Colvin has received the prestigious $10,000 Premier's Award for Outstanding Cancer Research Scholar from the Cancer Institute NSW for her research into pancreatic cancer.
The news was announced at a gala ceremony late last week. Established in 2006, the Premier's Awards recognise scientists whose work has had a significant impact on cancer treatment, clinical trials, prevention and research.
"It's great to see pancreatic cancer research getting the recognition and funding it deserves," said Emily. "It's a serious disease, with very poor outcomes, and there are things that can be done to improve this situation."
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death. The overall 5-year survival rate is less than 5%, the lowest of any cancer, with almost 90% succumbing within a year of diagnosis. Surgical resection offers the only chance of long-term survival.
Emily's research has looked at three different aspects of pancreatic cancer: aberrant molecular signalling involved in tumour development; 'biomarkers' (the presence of certain molecules in a patient) that predict prognosis or response to therapy; and the possible triggering role played by bone marrow derived stem cells.
Emily regards her biomarker research, which could help to personalise therapy for patients with pancreatic cancer, as the most successful part of her PhD.
"If the results of my work are taken into the clinic, they will help better match patients to the treatments that are going to be effective," she said.
"For example, surgery is currently the only successful treatment for pancreatic cancer, although it is not appropriate for all patients. The use of biomarkers can help predict who's going to respond to an operation and who is not."
"Some biomarkers indicate that patients already have metastatic disease, so there is no point putting them through the extra trauma of a major operation."
Biomarkers can also help predict a patient's response to gemcitabine, the main chemotherapy drug for pancreatic cancer. Only a subset of patients respond to chemotherapy.
Emily's biomarker research is part of a significant team effort, headed by Professor Andrew Biankin of Garvan's Pancreatic Cancer Research Group. Professor Biankin set up the NSW Pancreatic Cancer Network (NSWPCN) which co-ordinates the collection of tissue and associated data from hospitals around the State.
Emily attributes the success of the Biankin lab to the large and well characterised cohort he has developed through the NSWPCN. "It's one thing to have tissue to examine for markers, but it's another to have the matching clinical pathological data of the patients," she said.
"We really need to know the details of an operation and its outcome, as well as the patients' ages when they were diagnosed. There's a lot of data to collect, and the Network does that very well."
So where to now for Emily?
"This award has been very motivational for me as I'm just completing my PhD. I'm hoping it will help me get fellowship funding next year, so that I can continue my work on pancreatic cancer research, which is something that I am very passionate about."