veski's portraits of innovation

Lighting the way to better child cancer outcomes

Associate Professor Ross Dickins can go a long time without a big scientific result, and believes that some of the best experiments cant be rushed. He wants to inspire science students to follow their interests and to be in it for the long game.

To get to where he is today, Ross followed a basic interest in science derived from a heavy suspicion of anything that doesn’t have a foundation of evidence. “I have faith, but in experiments not imaginings”. He believes that much of his success came from being in the right place at the right time, and through proximity with bright scientists to whom discovery comes naturally.

His own game plan was influenced by his parents. “Dad was a chemical engineer interested in scientific thinking and Mum was a very switched-on nurse with a real passion for her work”, he says. “So as a cancer researcher, I guess I’ve ended up somewhere in the middle”.

Ross returned from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private, not-for-profit institute founded in 1890, located an hour’s drive east of New York City in ‘Great Gatsby’ country. Back in Melbourne, he joined the Molecular Medicine Division of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) as a veski innovation fellow in February 2009.

Ross studies acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer. About 300 people are diagnosed with ALL each year in Australia, with a peak incidence between the ages of three to five years.

“In developed countries it is a leading cause of morbidity in children,” he says. “While ALL cure rates are approaching 90 per cent, standard therapies are very traumatic. Two to three years of consolidation therapy involving steroids, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation often lead to major side effects,” he says.

At a veski event one evening, Ross sat next to a former nurse who ran the oncology ward at the Royal Children’s Hospital. They talked about ALL therapies, the side effects, and the impact the disease has on both children and parents. It informed and inspired him immensely. “The kids get very sick. It’s a bit of a sledgehammer approach. They may be cured of the disease but the therapy damages non-leukaemic normal tissue and this can cause lifelong problems,” he says. “It’s clear that better therapies are needed, especially for patients who don’t respond well initially”.

He also gets a buzz from being part of ‘Light the Night’, an annual walk along the Yarra River at twilight, where thousands of people shine lanterns of hope and fundraise to find a cure for blood cancer.

“Every cent put into a Leukaemia Foundation tin on the night goes directly into cutting edge research, done in labs like ours, to improve therapies,” Ross says. “That’s great.”

For Ross, much job satisfaction comes from the relationships formed. He credits veski with offering him the opportunity to interact with a broader cross-section of the scientific community, as well as high school science and maths teachers and students such as those participating in veski’s inspiring students (& teachers) program.

“I shared a table with Kyneton Secondary College students and teachers at a dinner following the Graeme Clark Oration, and it was a blast. As a follow-up we invited the students and teachers to WEHI during the school holidays and gave them a tour of our labs. My PhD students showed the Kyneton students DNA gels and gave them a sense of what it’s like to be a scientist,” he says.

The Synchroton and WEHI trips have been brilliant in forming ongoing linkages between professional scientists, teachers and students. Hopefully just communicating with the kids and getting them into real laboratories gets them considering science as a future option.

“Passing knowledge to the next generation is the essence of science, and to be involved in that is really satisfying for me. It takes things beyond the experiments.”