“I know from personal experience how destructive cancer can be for both patients and their families,” says Elnaz Tavancheh, one of ONJCRI’s talented PhD students and winner of the 2020 Ronnie Goldberg scholarship.

The loss of two grandparents to cancer is what inspired Elnaz to pursue a career in cancer research. Arriving from her native Iran in 2014, her research sees her turning to historical tumour and blood samples to make a difference to those diagnosed with Stage III melanomas.

She is using an archival dataset from Melanoma Research Victoria, at the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, to identify molecular and immunological markers in melanomas to help improve the prediction of relapses.

“From the dataset I have identified 100 patients whose archival tumour and blood donations are suitable for study. The samples are around 10 years old which means we know each person’s outcome. Without their selfless donations, we couldn’t conduct this research, so I’m very grateful to them,” says Elnaz.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in skin cells called melanocytes and usually occurs on the parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun. Australia has the world’s highest incidence of melanoma.

Elnaz’s research focuses on patients with Stage III melanoma who have received treatment but where the risk of future relapse remains. Currently, oncologists use a variety of measurements like tumour thickness to predict a patient’s risk of relapse, but for many patients this is not very accurate.

“Stage III melanoma has huge potential for successful intervention and treatment in a clinical setting if we can better predict which patients are going to relapse,” says Elnaz, who is completing her PhD under the supervision of Tumour Immunology Laboratory Head Associate Professor Andreas Behren and postdoctoral research fellow Dr Jessica Duarte.

“What we have discovered so far in cancer research is only the tip of the iceberg — I picked this career to make a difference for people with cancer and to contribute to new and better treatments and I feel like I’m achieving that.

“I love what I’m doing. My supervisors have a huge amount of knowledge. They’re supportive, but give me the freedom to think independently, make decisions and push beyond my limits,” she says.