Hunting down a killer using the human body

11 July 2020

"It's like shining a spotlight on the cancer cells which the T cells then see and hone in on,"

As one of the inaugural Snow Fellowship winners, Dr Marian Burr has one of the world's biggest killers in her sights - cancer. It's hoped her work on using immune therapies to fight these deadly diseases will also unlock other bold, new treatments that will change the face of human health.

This year more than 9,000 Australians will die from lung cancer. Leukaemia will take more than 2,000 lives. And Melanoma will kill more than 1,700 of us.

As some of the most aggressive cancers these three wreak havoc not only at home but on populations across the globe. But what if the human body had the power to not only fight back against these deadly cancers and others - but defeat them?

This is the "game-changing" outcome early career researcher Dr Marian Burr has spent much of her already stellar career working toward. She is investigating how we can harness the power of the human immune system to target and eradicate cancer. It's called immunotherapy.

"The development of immunotherapy through pioneering work around the world has given us  new ways to treat cancer that use the immune system to specifically target the tumour cells," says Burr.

"Cancer immunotherapy is revolutionising the treatment of many cancers, leading to dramatic improvements in survival."

Immunotherapies work by using a patient's immune system to help hunt down and destroy cancer by activating T cells in our bodies.

"It's like shining a spotlight on the cancer cells which the T cells then see and hone in on," Dr Burr says.

So successful are these therapies that they can lead to long-term remission - even for patients with very advanced cancers. However not all patients respond to treatments and some cancers can evade the T cells.

Dr Burr has these evasive cancers in her sight. And her work has just been given a funding powerful boost - with an inaugural Snow Fellowship from the Snow Medical Research Foundation worth $8 million.

The generous funding will see Dr Burr join the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU in May 2021 - where she will pursue her bold research vision and agenda for eight years. 

"Already in the research that I've been doing, we've found some important insights to understand why some of these cancers are able to hide from the immune system and not respond to these therapies," Dr Burr says.  

"So I am really hopeful that we are going to be able to follow up from these discoveries and develop new treatments."

It's the kind of work that could one day benefit a huge number of patients with cancer.

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

"Our hope is that this is ultimately something that we are going to be able to use treat all different types of cancer. At the moment there are specific cancers that respond very well - like melanoma and certain types of lung cancer. These tumours affect lots of people. But also there are many other types of cancer that have not responded as well and that's where we hope to make a big difference."

Dr Burr is the epitome of an outstanding early career researcher. She completed her PhD in Cambridge in 2014, going on to work at her alma mater, as well as Australia's highly-regarded Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital. 

Her expertise covers cancer immunology, molecular biology and cellular pathology. When she is not in the lab researching treatments, Dr Burr works as a clinician - practicing medicine and helping cancer patients directly. Coupled with her incredible vision and already significant breakthroughs, it's exactly what made her an ideal candidate for the Snow Fellowships.

"Marian Burr has been acknowledged as one of the best researchers to go through the Cambridge Medical Research School," says Chair of the Snow Medical Research Foundation, Tom Snow.

"We are lucky to have her in Australia and this funding means we lock her into the Australian research environment over the long term. It's an absolute win for Australia."

At ANU, Dr Burr will be in good company. She will also be given the support and space she needs to pursue her vital work - which Dean of the ANU College of Health and Medicine, Professor Russell Gruen describes as being at the "cutting edge of the human body's response to cancer, infection, injury and aging."

"Every now and then you get a rising, young star and Marian is one of those people. She is truly brilliant," he says.

"As a clinician, she bridges the gap between discoveries, laboratory research and the pointy edge of clinical practice and real patient welfare.

"Marian will have a great opportunity at ANU, in partnership with the Snow Fellowship, to make a significant difference to human health and to become a research leader in her own right.        

"This is really a perfect partnership. Terry, Tom and the Snow family are really enabling and supporting the values that ANU holds so dear - the importance of early-career researchers being able to get on and do their research, particularly young women."