veski's portraits of innovation

His link to the past and bridge to the future

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, and a similar feeling of trepidation must have gripped Dr Mark Dawson’s parents when they moved their family to a new country, seeking a better life, some 30 years ago.

“After India gained independence, it became very hard for my grandparents and subsequently my parents who struggled professionally, so they bravely upped sticks and left and, as a result, gave us endless opportunities,” Mark says.

In 2014, after seven years in Cambridge, Mark and his wife Sarah-Jane, who previously lived near East Melbourne’s leafy Fitzroy Gardens when they were first married, upped sticks with their two sons and headed back to Melbourne.

“We’d done the hard yards to get the lab going in the UK and the thought of having to drop it all and start again filled us with dread and that is why the process has taken two and a half years. I come from a very supportive family and what makes it all worthwhile is seeing my kids develop a relationship with their grandparents and aunts and uncles,” Mark says.

Mark has taken up a position at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and a veski innovation fellowship, in order to build on his initial studies, and translate important basic science discoveries into innovative and targeted therapies for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

Sarah-Jane, also a leading researcher and medical oncologist, joins him at Peter Mac, enabling the couple to balance competing demands of childcare with career, and more than doubling the benefits back to Victoria of their emigration.

“My wife has traversed an almost identical path to mine, though she works in the area of breast cancer,” Mark says. “Our labs are co-located and our offices are shared. When we were trying to work out how we would manage our careers back here in Melbourne, we decided that we needed to work more closely together so that if one of our children is sick, one of us can leave to pick them up while the other one holds the fort.”

While treating patients is where he spends a large part of his day, Mark is also leading a group of researchers in the newly-established Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory at Peter Mac. He says epigenetics is one of the most active topics in cancer research with the potential to deliver a significant impact on a disease like AML, which has a very poor prognosis.

“I picked one of the most aggressive malignancies because it is a disease that can change the course of your life in a few short days. It most often presents out of the blue, you could be running a marathon one week and few weeks later you’re being told you have an incurable disease and could be gone within a year or, left untreated, months. I always remember people who die from AML because it often annihilates their lives in such a quick and inexorable manner.”

While family, the support of veski and Peter Mac, and the ability to continue his research alongside his clinical practice were all major draw cards, it’s the prospect of moving into the new home of Peter Mac at the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Parkville that will keep Mark on his toes for the next two years.

“Melbourne is where Sarah-Jane and I got our opportunities and we hope that moving back will provide the same opportunities for our sons”, Mark says.