ONJCRI - LTU School of Cancer Medicine Research Scholarships

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (LTU School of Cancer Medicine) Research Scholarships

General Projects and Scholarships

You can join our institute and study with renowned scientists with excellent publication records who are committed to helping you build a successful career in translational cancer research. Our translational research approach means that every day you’ll be able to work alongside clinicians, collaborating in the laboratory and at the bedside, to develop breakthrough therapies to help people feel better, sooner.

We have seven research programs and are currently on the search for more brilliant student scientists to join our team.
To review our research programs please go to the link below and email your area of interest to our student co-ordinator.

Our Research Programs

Breast Cancer Dormancy – Mechanisms and Development of Rational New Therapies.

Breast Cancer Dormancy – Mechanisms and Development of Rational New Therapies.


Supervisor: A/Prof Sarah Ellis and Prof.Robin Anderson

Laboratory: Receptor Biology Laboratory

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute

School of Cancer Medicine, La Trobe University

In Australia, over 3000 women die from breast cancer each year, and worldwide, over 520,000 women will die. Their cause of death is nearly always uncontrollable secondary tumours, or metastases. Distant metastatic disease is detected in up to 20% of those diagnosed with breast cancer, ultimately resulting in their death. Cancer relapse can occur years or decades after the initial diagnosis and treatment, causing ongoing fear and anxiety for patients.

It is evident that disseminated tumour cells (DTC) can remain in a clinically undetectable dormant state for years before causing a relapse. Since many types of chemotherapy rely on disrupting cell division, tumour cells in a dormant state are resistant to such therapies. To prevent recurrences and reduce breast cancer deaths, we need therapies that can either minimise release from dormancy or completely eradicate dormant cells. Indirect evidence for the existence of residual disease in patients comes from detection of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) or cell-free tumour DNA in blood samples. The difficulty of directly detecting and analysing residual disease in patients, in combination with the challenges of modelling dormancy in the laboratory has resulted in only fragmented knowledge of the establishment of DTCs in distant organs and their outgrowth into metastases.

The aim of this project is to use our preclinical models of breast cancer dormancy to image and isolate cells in the dormant cell niche in bone and lung and to generate transcriptomic profiles of both tumour cells and the surrounding host cells. With this knowledge, we will assess the efficacy of therapies designed to maintain tumour dormancy or target a dormancy-specific vulnerability to eradicate these cells. We will use mouse-based breast cancer models that naturally display dormancy to image and investigate the tumour cell niche in mice using confocal and multiphoton microscopy. Tumour cells will be recovered for transcriptomic profiling as a basis for testing different therapies designed to either maintain dormancy of disseminated tumour cells or to specifically target dormant cells.

Techniques involved:

High power microscopy
Mammalian cell tissue culture
Growth of tumours in mice
Transcriptomic profiling by RNA sequencing

Dr Ajithkumar Vasanthakumar has been awarded the highly prestigious NHMRC Investigator grant

Targeting Tregs for cancer treatment

After recently joining the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) as Head of the Tissue and Tumour Immunity Laboratory, Dr Ajithkumar Vasanthakumar has been awarded the highly prestigious NHMRC Investigator grant for his cutting-edge research exploring Regulatory T cells (Tregs) which aims to transform the future of cancer treatment.

Ajith was just in high school when Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from a single cell, was born in Scotland. It was a world away from his high school in southern India, but it sparked a curiosity of genetic engineering and a love of science that eventually brought him to the other side of the world.

“I’ve always loved science; my father was a teacher and so I was always learning. I never really expected to work in cancer research to be honest, my initial work was in biotechnology, but as my career progressed my research started to focus on immunology, and so I have found myself in this exciting area.”

Scientific interest to fast-paced career

After finishing his PhD in Biotechnology, Ajith took up an opportunity to start his postdoc at the Burnet Institute where he began working on immune cells. After a brief stint, he joined the Molecular Immunology division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, before becoming a Research Fellow at the Peter Doherty Institute.

“It was at WEHI where I initiated studies on understanding how Tregs adapt to different tissues. I made the landmark discovery that Tregs in the adipose tissue require a growth factor called IL-33. This forms the basis of my current research of investigating tissue specific homeostatic mechanisms of Tregs.”

Cutting edge cancer research

In February this year Ajith was recruited to the ONJCRI to study the mechanisms of Treg mediated immune suppression in cancer and discover methods to tackle this urgent clinical need which has ultimately earned him the highly regarded NHMRC Investigator grant.

Regulatory T Cells, or Tregs, are suppressor immune cells that reside in almost every organ of the body. They play a key role in suppressing an immune response and preventing autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory conditions. However, in the context of cancer, they dampen beneficial cancer killing immune responses and consequently promote cancer.

“Targeting or blocking suppressor immune cells is a good strategy for the treatment of cancer. Tregs are known to promote cancer by suppressing cancer killing immune cells. My group aims to identify a mechanism that could be harnessed to target Tregs for cancer treatment.”

While Tregs are harmful in the context of cancer, they are essential to prevent autoimmune diseases. Blocking or targeting all Tregs in the body would for many people lead to autoimmune complications.

“Our research aims to discover molecules and pathways that could be used to target Tregs within the tumour or tumour bearing tissue. This precision approach will therefore circumvent any adverse effects of systemic Treg targeting for cancer treatment.”

“We hope to do this by identifying molecules utilised by Tregs to migrate and sustain in tumours or tumour bearing organs and block these mechanisms to disable Tregs.  This approach will specifically block Tregs within tumours or tumour bearing organs to avoid autoimmune complications.”

With immune suppression a major driver of cancer and bottle neck in cancer immunotherapy, Ajith’s research is hugely important and is critical for the treatment of cancer.

“Several of the current immunotherapy approaches are unsuccessful in diverse cancer types (breast and colon for example) and Treg targeting would potentially improve the efficacy of existing immunotherapy modalities. Metastasis is a grave concern in the cancer field and targeting Tregs could also serve as a treatment option for metastatic cancer.”

Transforming cancer treatment

Ajith’s work is exciting to say the least, he talks enthusiastically about the potential of his pioneering research and what cancer treatment might look like in the not-so-distant future.

“While several existing methods are aimed at boosting cancer killing immune cells, treatment approaches to revert immune suppression is lacking. Precision targeting of Tregs will emerge as the next generation immunotherapy strategy to combat cancer.”

“The future of cancer research is exciting. We’ve come a long way over the past 50 years, from initially cutting out tumours, to targeted radiation and chemotherapy and now Immunotherapy, which is revolutionizing cancer treatment. It’s exciting to think where we could be in another 50 years.”

Research paints new picture of breast cancer spread and potential treatment

A new study has shed coloured light on how an aggressive breast cancer spreads to vital organs, and on potential genetic targets and drug treatments.

The study, published in Science Advances, used optical barcode technology to ‘paint a picture’ of which Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) cells spread to lungs and liver in pre-clinical models, and how the cells adapted to and colonised their new homes.

The research found these new homes had a strong impact on different behaviour: the gene expression of the cells had changed from the primary tumour to lung and liver metastases, and this was influenced by neighbouring cells in these tissues.

“Our study revealed that cancer cells have the ability to interact with each other, especially in lung metastases where many different TNBC cells clustered together as multi-coloured groups,” said Dr Jean Berthelet, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity (TPH) Laboratory at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and La Trobe University’s School of Cancer Medicine.

Dr Berthelet and TPH Laboratory Head Dr Delphine Merino led the study in collaboration with Dr Verena Wimmer and Dr Kelly Rogers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and Professor Frederic Hollande from the University of Melbourne.

The researchers successfully killed lung and liver metastatic cells with a drug that induces cell death. They also found that a drug used for the treatment of auto-immune diseases could break up the cancer-cell groups in the lungs. Reducing the diversity and communication within groups of cancer cells may enable future treatment strategies, including combined drug treatments.

Breast cancer tumours are composed of cells that are genetically different from each other. Some cells have the ability to spread and grow in other vital organs, often many years after the primary tumours appear. Darwinian theory may also have a say in which cells are successful. Genetic diversity ensures the survival of the sneakiest, including those cancer cells that can traverse the circulatory system, and evade the immune system and standard treatment.

TNBC patients have a higher risk of cancer relapses, including metastases in the liver, lungs, bones and brain. Treatment is often limited to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“One of the biggest challenge in breast cancer research is identifying the different cancer cells in a tumour so we can better predict which patient is likely to experience cancer recurrence and find new treatments,” said Dr Merino. “In this study, we were looking for genes that could be targeted by certain drugs to kill aggressive TNBC cells.”

To identify these genes, researchers used fluorescent proteins derived from jellyfish and sea anemones to tag individual TNBC cells with one of 31 different colours. This strategy, called LeGO, enabled them to track the fate of each cell: its movement, the number of ‘offspring’ it produced and its ability to cluster with one of the other 30 coloured cells in the metastases.

They then used genetic sequencing to examine the genetic difference between the same-coloured cancer cells in the primary tumour, the lung metastases and liver metastases.

“We are very grateful to the patients who donated precious samples to cancer research, and we are hoping that some of these results could be used to find better therapeutic strategies for patients with aggressive breast tumours and metastases,” said Dr Merino.

The Susan G. Komen foundation, Cancer Australia, the Australian National Breast Cancer Foundation, the Love your sister Foundation and Cancer Council Victoria supported this study.

Read the full study here