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Bioinformatician, Group Leader

Full time and Fixed Term

The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) is an independent medical research institute located in Heidelberg. Our mission is to discover and develop breakthrough therapies to help people live better with cancer and defeat it. Our research laboratories sit alongside patient treatment facilitiesto optimise collaboration between researchers and clinicians. The integration of laboratory and clinic ensures the rapid translation of scientific discoveries into clinical trials for the development of new cancer treatments. We investigate and develop treatments for cancers of the breast, bowel, lung, melanoma, prostate, liver, gastrointestinal and brain. The ONJCRI is a global leader in the development of immunotherapies, targeted therapeutics and personalised cancer medicine and sponsors early phase clinical trials.

Recently the Institute has grown into 5 different cancer research programs, developed a patient biobank, a genomic and single cell sequencing platform. The Institute has a growing need to have access to in-house bioinformatics capabilities for the efficient and meaningful analysis of large data sets created in house and or available from public databases. As part of the development of a bioinformatics program at ONJCRI, these preclinical and clinical data generated in the precinct represent a unique resource for further exploration. Accordingly, this position is outside of the confines of a particular laboratory, although de novo research activities undertaken in this position may occur via an equitable and collaborative arrangement between the laboratories.

Consumer Advocates

Consumer Advocates

Volunteer Position

We are always keen to partner with members of our community who have a shared interest in seeing changes in how cancer is treated and managed.” Consumer Advocates are people who have been affected by cancer – either they have had cancer themselves and are in disease-free remission, they are receiving treatment for cancer, or they are a family member or friend of someone affected by cancer. And while they will work directly with our researchers they are not expected to have a scientific background.

Our Advocates are highly valued and respected members of the ONJCRI volunteer team. It is a personally rewarding experience that provides a unique opportunity to directly inform our cancer research.

If you would like to know more about being an Advocate, please email consumeradvocate@onjcri.org.au

Activation of a distinct genetic pathway can slow the progress of metastatic breast cancer

Metastasis, the spread of tumour cells to distant sites, is the major cause of death for people impacted by cancer.  With no therapeutic cure available, it is clear that new treatments are needed urgently.

In a study published today in the international journal, Cancer Research a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, investigators at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine) have shown that when the protein bone morphogenetic protein-4 (BMP4) is switched off, breast cancer can become more aggressive. BMP4 is active during fetal development and is maintained during adulthood in some healthy organs, including the breast.

In this study, led by investigators Dr Bedrich Eckhardt (a Susan G Komen Postdoctoral Fellow) and Prof Robin Anderson (Head of the Translational Breast Cancer Program), it was hypothesised that restoring BMP4 activity would block the ability of breast tumours to metastasise.

“At its core, this study has demonstrated that high levels of the BMP4 protein in breast cancer patients is associated with a better outcome, linked to a reduction in metastatic breast cancer,” said Prof Anderson.

'This is an exciting finding as there has been no reduction in the rates of mortality for people with metastatic breast cancer for over 20 years,” said Prof Anderson.

This translational research study revealed that levels of the BMP4 protein are often reduced in late stage breast cancer. But when BMP4 levels were restored in preclinical models of metastatic breast cancer, it could block distant metastasis in multiple organs including the lung and bone.  These findings have been achieved through collaboration with researchers at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital (University of Western Australia) and MD Anderson Cancer Center (University of Texas, USA).

“As part of the study, we were able to demonstrate how BMP4 activates cellular pathways to block the ability of tumour cells to metastasise,” Dr Eckhardt explains, “and importantly show that key proteins induced by BMP4 are critical to block metastasis by reducing the number of circulating tumour cells within the blood”.

While the ultimate aim is to bring a new therapy into the clinic through clinical trials, the next phase of research will focus on finding a compound that mimics the anti-metastatic actions of BMP4.   

“A current challenge is that BMP4 protein has an active half-life of only 15 minutes or less in the body after administration, so it is not a practical long-term therapy,” said Prof Anderson.  “We will now focus on finding a more therapeutically viable way of mimicking the action of BMP4 in vivo as a new lead therapy for patients with metastatic breast cancer,” said Prof Anderson.

Review the paper in Cancer Research 

Image description: Immunofluorescent staining reveals activation of the BMP-Smad signaling pathway in metastatic breast cancer cells in response to BMP4 stimulation (left panel, not treated; right panel, BMP4 treated). 


Researchers discover a new way that immune cells detect cancers and infections

Cancer immunology experts from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (as the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine) have joined forces with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) and CSL Limited to determine the molecular basis for how an important component of the immune system, called gamma-delta T cells, detects infections and cancers.

Published in Science, the research team say this breakthrough of discovering how gamma-delta T cells become activated addresses a question that has baffled scientists for 25 years.

Co-lead author, Dr Andreas Behren, ONJCRI Tumour Immunology Laboratory Head said “these findings represent a key advance in our understanding of how gamma-delta T cells function to protect us from disease.”

“We believe that this breakthrough could ultimately lead to the development of new and improved immunotherapy treatments for millions of people worldwide impacted by cancer and infection,” he said.

The study was conducted by University of Melbourne’s Marc Rigau, PhD student at the Doherty Institute, was co-led by Dr Andreas Behren, a Laboratory Head, Dr Adam Uldrich, a Senior Research Fellow at the Doherty Institute, and Professor Dale Godfrey a laboratory head at the Doherty Institute. Prof Jonathan Cebon, ONJCRI Cancer Immunobiology Program Head was also an author on the paper and part of the original research team for the project at ONJCRI’s predecessor the Ludwig Institute.

“This is an exciting finding for the global scientific community,” said Dr Behren, “because there is great potential that these findings could eventually help to develop new immunotherapy treatments for cancer and infections.”

Dr Uldrich explained that gamma-delta T cells are known to respond to the presence of small molecules, known as phosphoantigens, that are produced by bacteria and cancer cells. “This leads to the activation of these gamma-delta T cells and often eradication of the diseased cells,” Dr Uldrich said.

Professor Godfrey said “Up until now, scientists have struggled to understand the fundamental question of how phosphoantigens are detected by gamma-delta T cells.”

“We found that molecules on the surface of the gamma-delta T cells, called T cell receptors, bind to another molecule called butyrophilin 2A1 that is present on many different cell types throughout the body, including cancer cells,” Professor Godfrey said.

“This research project demonstrates the power of collaboration between academia and industry. Nearly a decade ago, we identified Butyrophilin 2A1 as a potential therapeutic target but its precise biological function remained elusive,” said Dr Con Panousis, Senior Director Molecular Biology, CSL Limited and an author on the paper.

“This discovery makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how gamma-delta T cells work and in doing so, paves the way for translating this research into new immunotherapies for the treatment of serious human disease.”

The ONJCRI team will now focus their efforts on the next phase of the project where they will look for opportunities to apply the findings to particular cancers and other diseases.

This research has been made possible thanks to funding from the Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, Cancer Council Victoria, the Victorian Cancer Agency and CSL Limited.

The collaborators have filed patents surrounding their discovery.

Read the paper in Science 

Find out more about the Doherty Institute

Find out more about CSL Limited

Cell image description: Part of a melanoma tumour with expression of butyrophilin 2A1 highlighted in green and cell nuclei in blue.

Prestigious grant funding ensures vital breast cancer research continues

Dr Delphine Merino

Dedicated breast cancer researcher Dr Delphine Merino has been awarded the Susan G. Komen Career Catalyst Research Grant to further her vital research into breast cancer metastases.

Through a partnership between Komen – a USA-based breast cancer funding organisation – and Cancer Australia, the grant cements a joint commitment by the funders to support research that will identify and deliver cures for breast cancer worldwide.

This unique and highly competitive research grant will enable Dr Merino to lead her vital research into breast cancer metastases for the next three years.

As Head of the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory in the Translational Breast Cancer Program at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, Dr Merino and her team aim to identify the most aggressive cells in patient tumours which are responsible for breast cancer progression and mortality.

“The mortality associated with breast cancer is largely due to the spread of breast cancer cells to vital organs in the body,” said Dr Merino.

“There is an urgent need to elucidate the genetic properties of malignant cells responsible for metastatic spread and treatment failure,” she said.

Patients are at the heart of her research. Dr Merino’s research is centred on discoveries that will impact patient survival and personalised medicine.

This grant will enable further research to help characterise the ability of malignant cells to metastasise in different organs and resist current therapies. In identifying which therapy metastatic cells will be susceptible to, outcomes for breast cancer patients can be significantly improved.

“Understanding the genetic properties of cancer cells within a tumour will allow us to implement new therapies to treat patients with recurrent disease,” said Dr Merino.

The study of metastatic breast cancer has been the focus of Dr Merino’s research for a number of years.

“As a dedicated breast cancer researcher, I share with the Susan G. Komen Foundation the ultimate goal of reducing breast cancer deaths by 2026. This prestigious grant will ensure continued momentum in my endeavours toward improving the lives of patients with breast cancer.”

Main image description: Labelling of breast cancer cells

New imaging centre to expose the secret life of cancer cells

Researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) will be able to study cancer tumour cells in greater detail at a state-of-the-art imaging centre thanks to a generous $2m grant by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF).

The ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment was officially opened on 4 October 2019, and will be used to examine how cancer cells are interacting with other cells around them, in their own micro environment. The insights, provided by imaging machines including Multiphoton and Confocal Microscopes and a NanoString Molecular Barcoding Scanner, will assist the development of new treatments, including new forms of immunotherapy and personalised medicine - relatively new approaches to cancer that are improving survival rates.

ONJCRI researchers will achieve this by studying a variety of tumour samples to investigate how tumour and other cells interact, and better understand which drugs impact specific tumour types. The data from these studies will then be used to identify trends and in turn inform the criteria for targeted treatment options and more personalised cancer treatments.

In the future, these research findings could be provided to clinicians to help inform a patient’s personal treatment plan based on the predicted response of a patient’s unique tumour and cell interactions.

ONJCRI Scientific Director, Prof Matthias Ernst, said the opening of the ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment will enable researchers at ONJCRI and the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science for the first time to observe how cancer cells embed and grow between normal cells.

“The new Centre will literally shine a light on what happens in the immediate environment around a tumour, giving us the information we need to develop effective, targeted anti-cancer therapies,” Prof Ernst said.

“We know that tumour cells coerce and corrupt their environment to their advantage. If we understand the interactions and mechanisms they use to do this, we will better understand how to disrupt these processes that fuel the growth of tumours,” he said.

ACRF CEO, Kerry Strydom said; “We are extremely proud to be part of this next chapter for ONJCRI. At ACRF we believe that to find more effective ways to prevent, detect and treat cancers we must seek to understand it better. This initiative is doing just that. We look forward to the impact of findings from the work being done at this new Centre and the difference this will make in the lives of people diagnosed with cancer.”

Find out more about the ACRF Centre for Imaging the Tumour Environment

Find out more about ACRF

John Brumby retires as ONJCRI’s inaugural Chair - Jenny Macklin to become new Chair

After five years as the inaugural Chair of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), The Hon John Brumby has announced that he will step down from the role, effective 1 November 2019.

Mr Brumby was instrumental in guiding the direction of the ONJCRI when it commenced in 2015 and has been a strong advocate and representative since this time.  Under his leadership, the research team has grown significantly and the outcomes from these projects are having life-changing impact for people with cancer.  His passion has consistently helped to motivate and drive the work of the ONJCRI team and we acknowledge the impact his leadership has had on the Institute’s success to date, including the more than 230 research collaborations and 140 scientific papers published over the last year.

ONJCRI is thrilled to announce that Ms Jenny Macklin has joined the ONJCRI Board and will take over the role of Chair from 1 November 2019.

Ms Macklin brings passion and enthusiasm to this role, which are sentiments shared among all members of our Board.  She holds a personal desire to drive change for a better community and this was clearly demonstrated during her political career.  Her community focus also aligns well with the ONJCRI mission of creating a future where cancer is a treatable disease while never losing our focus on finding a cure.

As a former economics research analyst, Jenny Macklin understands the complexities of research environments.  This experience is coupled with the delivery of major community impact projects including the implementation of Australia's first national Paid Parental Leave Scheme, the Closing the Gap framework, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Ms Macklin retired from politics in early 2019 when she decided to not stand as a candidate for the seat of Jagajaga at the federal election, a position which she held since 1996.  The ONJCRI is also located within this electorate and Ms Macklin has been a passionate supporter and seen the Institute grow firsthand over the past 5 years.

The ONJCRI is sincerely grateful to Mr Brumby for his longstanding support for both the ONJ Wellness Centre and the Research Institute, his commitment and desire to support research breakthroughs that will have direct benefits for people with cancer.  We are very proud that he has been a part of the Institute story so far, and we look forward to continuing to celebrate the success of the Institute through his role as Chancellor of La Trobe University and our shared La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine.

NHMRC grants focus on new cancer therapies research

We are delighted to confirm that two Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) researchers have been awarded over $4.5 million in funding for the next 5 years in the inaugural round of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Investigator Grant scheme, announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

This significant investment will allow the ONJCRI, as the La Trobe School of Cancer Medicine, to continue research into the use of imaging techniques for targeted treatments, and the development of novel anti-cancer therapies.

“As an Institute, we are committed to conducting research that we believe can have the greatest impact on the availability of new cancer treatments, and in turn improve outcomes for people impacted by cancer,” said Prof Ernst, Scientific Director, ONJCRI.

“Grant funding like this, is pivotal for our teams to continue to translate research into practical applications and treatments. It is also great recognition of the work being led by the Institute and our research partners.”

Find out more about our NHMRC Investigation Grant recipients and their projects:

Prof Andrew Scott - $2,640,000

TumourTargeting1-Portraits_smProf Scott’s research focuses on developing improved ways to detect cancer cells in the body through sophisticated imaging techniques, and creating new strategies for treating cancer with targeted therapies. This grant will fund work to discover and develop novel antibodies for treating cancer and extend these discoveries into clinical trials, and support the development of innovative imaging probes that will improve cancer patient management and therapeutics development.

Prof Scott’s successful application was rated in the highest category. Nationally, only seven applications from approximately 750 submissions (0.9%), scored in this highest category, illustrating his exemplary application and research.


Prof Matthias Ernst - $2,049,000

Matthias Ernst_smRecent progress in cancer treatment is based on the insight that cancer cells are not only surrounded by normal cells, but that these normal cells are corrupted and exploited by cancer cells for their own survival and protection from the immune system. This grant will allow Prof Ernst and his team to better understand the molecular mechanism by which cancer cells coerce normal cells and ultimately to identify molecular targets for the development of novel anti-cancer therapies.


Read the announcement by Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP

Community support boosts research technology

For researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), it is critical that they have access to the latest cutting-edge equipment in order to undertake their groundbreaking research.

Without certain pieces of technology, it can be difficult for them to carry out their work with the specific attention to detail that cancer research demands. This equipment is often very expensive however, so generous donations to the ONJCRI are therefore crucial in order to acquire this technology.

Three women who work at Scotch College recently set up a fundraising event in memory of loved ones lost to cancer. They raised $37,000 at their Girls Night Out event, all of which was donated to the ONJCRI. Now, the funds have been used to buy a cryostat; a vital piece of equipment for researchers in the Translational Breast Cancer Program.

The cryostat is a versatile instrument that allows researchers to cut ultrafine slices of frozen biological tissue, allowing researchers to examine samples in minute detail whilst preserving their quality.

Dr Normand Pouliot, head of the Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory, is working to identify biomarkers (such as particular proteins, DNA and RNA) that could help clinicians predict which patients are likely to see their disease recur or who could benefit from certain treatments.

“The presence of these biomarkers is commonly validated in ‘archival’ tumour tissues preserved in wax. However, tissues that are preserved in wax for long-term storage require treatment with harsh chemicals that affect the integrity of protein, DNA and RNA,” says Dr Pouliot.

“This often makes detection of these molecules very difficult and unreliable. The cryostat overcomes these limitations because it allows us to prepare slices of freshly frozen tissues without the use of these harsh chemicals and therefore enables us to detect biomarkers more easily and reliably.”

Being able to utilise the cryostat has provided a massive boost to Dr Pouliot’s research, and has also transformed the work of many of his ONJCRI colleagues.

“As research becomes more and more dependent on expensive technologies and equipment, every institute struggles to find funds to satisfy the demands to perform cutting-edge research. Community engagement is so important to us and these fundraising efforts are essential to our work. We really can’t thank our donors enough,” Dr Pouliot says.

The resounding success of the Girls Night Out fundraiser has spurred the organisers on to collaborate with the ONJCRI in hosting an event every two years.

Find out more about:
Dr Normand Pouliot
Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory

Repurposing existing drugs to treat gastric cancers

Over 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancers every year and 80 die from the disease each week.

With such hard hitting statistics, there is a very real urgency to develop new treatments for one of the nation’s most common cancers. Unfortunately, it often takes years for drugs to be made available after being discovered in the laboratory and the sad reality is that many patients can’t afford to wait this long.

Dr Ashwini Chand of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has published a paper this month through the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) that investigates a novel way of bypassing this lengthy development process. Her team in the Cancer Therapeutics Development Group is working to repurpose drugs already being used to treat other diseases for cancer therapy. Because these drugs have already passed clinical trial stage, they can hopefully be prescribed to cancer patients sooner.

“The concept of repurposing how an existing drug is used favours identifying drugs with greater tolerability in patients,” explains Dr Chand.

“An additional possible benefit for cancer patients and their families is that off-patent drugs are more easily accessible as treatments and are not as costly.”

Dr Chand’s paper evaluates the effectiveness of bazedoxifene, a drug clinically approved for the treatment of osteoporosis, in inhibiting the growth of gastrointestinal tumours.

Inflammatory cytokines are signaling molecules that promote the normal immune response of inflammation in the body, but which can also contribute to the progression and treatment resistance of tumours in the presence of cancer. Gastric tumours frequently arise and progress rapidly due to excessive signaling through gp130, the shared receptor for the interleukin (IL)6 family of inflammatory cytokines. Dr Chand’s findings show that bazedoxifene is able to mimic interactions between the gp130 receptors and IL6 cytokines, essentially tricking the receptors into binding with it and preventing them from interacting with the cytokines.

In this way, bazedoxifene prevents gastrointestinal tumours from growing and possibly progressing to an advanced cancer stage.

“These findings are significant as we have for the first time shown that a drug can block the IL6 signalling pathway,” says Dr Chand. “I am thankful for our collaborators, who assisted my team in utilising a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the IL6 signalling biology in cancer cells. We are hopeful that our future studies will allow us to decide which particular patients this drug will be most beneficial to as a cancer therapy.”

Dr Chand is excited about these findings as they offer immediate and tangible hope for people diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer.

“It is great to have discovered a treatment that may very soon be implemented in the clinic for cancer patients, especially since therapeutic doses have already been decided and any side-effects extensively tested on bone density and other physiological parameters.  The next step will be to work out the drug’s efficacy in patients with gastrointestinal cancer.”

Dr Chand’s group is also looking into repurposing drugs used for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Find out more about:
Dr Ashwini Chand
Cancer Therapeutics Development Group

Read the publication here