Research student tackles most common childhood cancer

Ten years ago, Antonia Policheni was distraught when her grandfather was diagnosed with leukaemia.

“The idea of losing the head of our family was quite devastating and took a massive toll on our family,” she said. “From that moment, I knew I had a passion for trying to find a cure for this disease.”

I know the toll it took on my family. I can only imagine what it’s like for families of young children.

This year Antonia was awarded one of six coveted post-doctoral research fellowships funded by Cancer Council to Victoria’s brightest students.

Working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Antonia’s project aims to understanding why some children relapse from the most common form of childhood leukaemia, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL).

“If we can find a way to kill off cancer cells that are resistant to chemotherapy, these children will go into remission and hopefully never have to have another stem cell transplant or chemotherapy and can just live their life free of cancer,” she said.

Each year around 250 children in Australia are diagnosed with leukaemia, which is a cancer of the blood. While nearly 90% will survive the disease, sadly for children that relapse the chance of survival significantly decreases.

“Out of all the children in Australia that relapse, only 40% of them will survive. That is a devastating statistic, so there is an urgent need to focus on finding a targeted therapy to prevent these children from dying.”

“My passion is really just to help find a cure so these little kids get to fulfil their life.”

Dr Anna Boltong, Director of Strategy and Support at Cancer Council Victoria, said Antonia’s application had been reviewed positively and her research showed much promise.

“Antonia was first awarded one of our Postgraduate Scholarships in 2013 to complete her PhD and so this post-doctoral fellowship will allow her to continue her work for another year,” Dr Boltong said.

“This is a highly competitive field and Antonia’s project has been rigorously reviewed by Cancer Council Victoria’s Medical and Scientific Committee, made up of experts from Victorian universities, hospitals and other health and medical research institutes.”

Ms Policheni said receiving the post-doctoral fellowship from Cancer Council Victoria was a great honour.

“I’m quite excited about the prospect of furthering my career in medical research,” she said.

“Organisations like Cancer Council provide amazing support to us research scientists that let us get back to the bench and do what we know how to do best.

“As scientists, we each put in a block of missing information and that’s how we hopefully get to a cure in the not too distant future.”

The project has the potential to help other cancers including stomach and intestine and is soon to progress to the next stage.

“We’ve made the discoveries in the lab and so the next part of the process is receiving patient samples, which we’ll do through a collaboration project with the Royal Children’s Hospital,” she said.

“Once we analyse these samples we see if we can validate what we’ve discovered in the lab, which is one step closer to clinical trials and then making it to the beside for these patients.” 

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