Thanks to your support, Cancer Council Victoria’s Grants-in-Aid program funds high quality research into the causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
We are proud to work closely with pioneering cancer researchers like Dr Debra Gook who are empowering cancer patients across the world. Dr Gook gave us an insight into some of the incredible work she is doing as well as reflecting on the women who have inspired her and her advice for other women and girls interested in pursuing a career in research.
Dr Gook’s inspiration for dedicating her career to research
“I had a friend who developed cervical cancer and she said one of her biggest regrets was that she'd never be able to have children and never see her children grow up. Knowing how that affects women and their motivation for being mothers, even though I wasn’t a mother at that stage, I thought it was something I could work on and improve for women. I’m a mother myself now and have two adult children.
“I made it my mission through my research career. I first developed a method for freezing eggs and we opened up the world's first egg bank right here in Melbourne. I then found many of those women couldn't delay their chemo to wait for their cycle for egg collection, so I developed a method for freezing ovarian tissue,” she said.
Dr Gook’s goal is to give women undergoing cancer treatment the option to have their own genetic child if they wish to in the future. They can then begin their cancer treatment, understanding the impact chemotherapy has on their fertility and know that they have options for having children in the future.
“Like my friend, it is women with cancer that inspire me, they battle with diagnosis, treatment and continue to study, complete degrees, work, care for loved ones, hold their families together through adversity. They are courageous, brave, amazing women.
“Women are really amazing, and they've got such reliance to push through different times and come out the other side and do everything they can for their families and communities,” Dr Gook said.
Women have been at a disadvantage for the past 50 years when facing fertility issues. But thanks in part to Dr Gook’s pioneering work, on fertility has very recently given girls, women, and gender diverse people with cancer more options to take control of their fertility.
In 1989, Dr Gook embarked on her career to preserve women’s fertility. She convinced her boss to let her study the mechanics of egg-freezing – something considered almost impossible at the time.
Find out more about Dr Gook’s career history timeline.
Current research project
Dr Gook’s most recent achievements allow cancer patients to have their ovarian tissue frozen and stored. Unlike egg freezing which can take weeks or even months to complete, Dr Gook’s team have made collecting ovarian tissue a fast process, so these patients aren’t at risk of delaying their cancer treatment. This means many more can preserve their fertility.
Currently Dr Gook’s research is focusing on children and adolescents who have a high rate of Leukaemia, that are about to have heavy chemotherapy which will prevent them from having children in the future.
“We would like to freeze the ovarian tissue, but we know Leukaemia is likely in the tissue, so there’s potential for the woman to have recurrence of disease when the tissue is put back in,” says Dr Gook.
“Many patients can’t decide if they should freeze tissue or not. This research is trying to come up with a way of treating the ovarian tissue to remove the Leukaemia cells. We are aiming to treat it with chemotherapy that might eliminate the cells, attempting to wash the Leukaemia cells out and will then try to isolate the small follicles in the tissue and then put into matrix and make an artificial ovary.
“Our goal is to remove Leukaemia, increase safety for the woman and then use an artificial ovary.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant her team were unable to access their lab, as they were based in a hospital, Dr Gook and her team are now back working and hoping to progress this project quickly. Her hope is that everyone will have the option to freeze tissue, knowing that they have done as much as we can for it to be safe.
Dr Gook’s advice for other women and girls
“If you're passionate about something, take it in both hands and run with it. I started a whole new field that was not even thought about or realised it could be an option. It was really only my belief that it was something that was needed that I convinced others that it was a real possibility for women. If you have passion for something, see a path and keep working toward it.”
Dr Debra Gook is Head of Cryopreservation Services, Reproductive Services/Melbourne IVF at Royal Women’s Hospital. Dr Gook is also recipient of one of Cancer Council Victoria’s prestigious Grants-in-Aid research grants, and her work is being supported by our 101 Women Against Cancer giving circle.