Dr Erinna Lee

Dr Erinna Lee, a scientist based at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) has been awarded the prestigious Future Fellowship for her research into the process of cell survival and cell death. Her breakthrough research may hold the key to cancer treatment in the near future.

The Future Fellowships scheme supports research in areas of critical national importance by giving outstanding researchers incentives to conduct their research in Australia. This is the first time a researcher based at ONJCRI has been awarded a Future Fellowship.

Dr Lee is part of the Institute’s newest research group, Cell Death and Survival Laboratory and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine. The Laboratory studies the molecular pathways that control the fate of a cell.

Dr Lee explains: “Cancer cells are particularly interesting because apoptosis (cell death) sometimes doesn’t happen or autophagy (cell survival) happens at the wrong time.  For example, there can be too many ‘survival’ proteins in cancer cells, and as a result a tumour continues to grow.”

Researchers know that there are five ‘pro-survival’ proteins, but the challenge is learning which protein is present in each type of cancer.

“If we can identify which of these specific proteins are keeping the cancer cell alive, then we, and other scientists can develop and target drugs to trigger the natural process of cell death,” says Dr Lee.

“I’m privileged to be building on the discoveries of other scientists and I’m excited to be working within the ONJ Centre where we can continue to make breakthrough discoveries in cancer treatment and help patients.”

“It is a realistic hope that in the near future we will be able to take a cancer cell from a patient, profile it to identify the ‘pro-survival’ protein, and eradicate the cancer cell with the appropriate drug,” says Dr Lee.