Laura Jenkins was one of the ONJCRI’s first Honours students. Now, her PhD in colorectal cancer has led to an exciting clinical trial that she hopes will make a real difference to people’s lives.


“When I first started my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t quite sure where it would lead,” says Laura.

But after learning more about cancer research, it became clear that was the path for her.

Laura has recently completed her PhD which focussed on investigating combination therapies for colorectal cancer.

“The survival rates for patients with metastatic colorectal cancer are low: the five-year survival rate for these patients remains below 15 per cent, so there is a lot of improvement to be made.”

“My research focuses on the MAPK pathway which in the context of cancer sends signals that support the growth and survival of these tumours. While there are existing drugs that can help block this pathway, these drugs appear to mainly stop the growth of cancer cells, rather than kill them.”

During the course of her PhD, Laura has been trying to find a way to enhance the killing capacity of these inhibitors. After testing several different combinations in colorectal cancer cell lines and mouse models, she found that by combining MAPK inhibitors with epigenetic therapy drugs, histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, she was able to kill cancer cells.

It’s been a long journey, but the breakthrough finding was pitched to the Australian Gastrointestinal Trials Group (AGITG) in 2021 and will move to clinical trial later in 2022, with the generous support from the AGITG and an MRFF grant.

“Having my PhD research lead to a clinical trial is really exciting,” says Laura. “The trial will include 80 participants, all of whom have metastatic colorectal cancer. We are really hoping that these drugs might be able to help the participants and improve their outcomes.”

“I feel very fortunate to have completed my PhD at the ONJCRI. My supervisors are really supportive, but they have also really challenged me.”

“I was in the first cohort of Honours students to come through the Institute, so I have been lucky enough to see the Institute grow and change. Being in a hospital setting really gives me a unique perspective that I don’t think I would get elsewhere.”

“Walking through the hospital every day, I can’t help but be reminded why I chose this career path. It’s really motivating knowing that our research can make such an impact on people’s lives.”