Unlocking the power of cancer immunotherapy

19 February 2021

In the fight against cancer, a new treatment approach uses the power of a patient's immune system to help hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

"Cancer immunotherapy is revolutionising the treatment of many cancers and is leading to dramatic improvements in survival," says Dr Marian Burr.

Dr Burr is an academic pathologist, who has already made significant discoveries in her short research career that have important implications for drug discovery and immunotherapy. Her research into cancer immunotherapy has now received an $8 million boost.

As an inaugural recipient of the Snow Fellowship, she will join the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at ANU in May 2021. The fellowship funding will support her leading cancer research for eight years, with $1 million per year.

The Snow Fellowship provides a tremendous opportunity for me to focus on unlocking the power of cancer immunotherapy,

Dr Marion Burr.

The Snow Fellowship program has been established by Canberra's Terry Snow and the Snow family. It provides outstanding biomedical researchers with support to build research programs and teams capable of changing the face of healthcare in Australia and globally. The program's emphasis is on developing young researchers to become our future research leaders through long-term secure funding.

Dr Burr will use her Snow Fellowship to build on her current research examining 'immune checkpoint inhibitors' or ICI. This therapy activates T cells  - an essential part of the patient's own immune system -- to find and eliminate cancer.

"It's like shining a spotlight on the cancer cells which the T cells then see and target. ICI therapy can lead to long-term complete remission, even in patients with very advanced cancers," Dr Burr said.

"What is so exciting is the incredible potential immunotherapy has to wipe out cancer that has spread to different parts of the body. And for some cancers that's a complete game-changer."

"Using cutting-edge technologies, my team will build on our recent discoveries to enhance immune targeting of aggressive cancers - such as lung cancer, melanoma and leukaemia, and to better understand the mechanisms cancer cells use to hide or shield themselves from the immune system."

The establishment of Dr Burr's team in Canberra will accelerate cancer research and the provision of advanced cancer care to the Canberra community. Dr Burr's unique skillset as an academic pathologist means she will work closely with oncologists, surgeons, nurses and other health professionals to ensure that patients receive an accurate diagnosis and prognosis, optimal treatment and access to the latest drugs and clinical trials. 

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt celebrated the vision and generosity that went into establishing and funding the national Snow Fellowship program. 

"The Snow Fellowship has brought one of the world's most promising early-career cancer researchers to ANU and Canberra - an outcome that would not only benefit Australia but also the world." 

This impact story is a feature in the 2020 Report to Donors

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