THE 2019 LEMBERG MEDAL: MARIA KAVALLARIS
Children’s Cancer Institute
Professor Maria Kavallaris is an NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at the Children’s Cancer Institute and Founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at the University of New South Wales.
After initially training as a pathology technician, Maria received her Bachelor of Applied Science Degree from the University of Technology Sydney in 1989. She subsequently received her PhD in drug resistance in childhood leukaemia, under Professor Michelle Haber, from the University of New South Wales in 1994.
In 1996, Maria was awarded an IARC Cancer Research Training Fellowship, undertaken at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York under the mentorship of Professor Susan Band Horwitz. Microtubules are fundamental to all eukaryotic cells; Maria’s discovery during this fellowship that alterations in expression of specific β-tubulin isotypes are associated with resistance to taxol was a paradigm shift in the field. She received the AACR BG Leventhal Women in Cancer Research Award for this seminal research.
In 1998, Maria returned to Australia to establish a research group at the Children’s Cancer Institute. Maria’s research has made key advances from basic molecular and cellular biology in the microtubule and cytoskeletal fields, to defining mechanisms of clinical drug resistance and tumour aggressiveness in childhood and adult cancers, to developing new classes of therapeutics and diagnostics using nanotechnology. Her contributions include advancing our understanding of the interplay of cytoskeletal proteins in cell division, cell signalling, metastatic spread, drug–target interactions, and drug resistance in cancer. Maria’s laboratory identified a distinct functional role for βIII-tubulin as a survival factor that mediates sensitivity to broad classes of chemotherapeutic drugs, changing the thinking about this protein in clinical resistance. Functional and differential proteomic studies identified that TUBB3/βIII-tubulin mediates its effects in lung cancer by regulating expression of the PTEN/AKT signalling axis. Along with her colleagues and collaborators, she has also advanced the development and effective delivery of siRNA to different types of tumour cells using nanoparticles. Clinical and industry linkages have led to a drug delivery system entering a Phase 1 clinical trial for aggressive and drug refractory solid tumours in children.
Maria has had the privilege of working with outstanding students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians, colleagues and collaborators, and has been generously supported by numerous funding bodies including the NHMRC, Cancer Council and the ARC. In recognition of the significance and impact of her work, Maria has received numerous prizes and awards including an Australian Museum Eureka Award (2007), AFR/Westpac 100 Women of Influence (2015), and the NSW Premier’s Prize for Science and Engineering – Leadership in Innovation in NSW (2017). In 2016, Maria was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (FAHMS). On Australia Day 2019, Maria was named as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her ‘significant service to medicine, and to medical research, in the field of childhood and adult cancers.’