Researcher Spotlight: Why Nanomedicine is Big News

Researcher Spotlight: Why Nanomedicine is Big News

What is nanomedicine, and how are Cure Cancer Australia-funded researchers using it to help improve cancer treatment?

Prof Maria Kavallaris, Founding Director, Australian Centre for Nanomedicine

Prof Maria Kavallaris, Founding Director, Australian Centre for Nanomedicine

Put simply, nanomedicine is the use of extremely small materials (nanoparticles) for medicine. Nanoparticles are a form of transport for drugs and can go places drugs wouldn’t be able to go on their own.

Nanoparticles can be engineered and designed to package and transport drugs directly to where they’re needed. This approach means the drugs cause most harm in the intended area they are delivered to, thus minimising side effects and damage to surrounding healthy tissues.

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The nanoparticle drug-delivery systems can work in different ways. Along with carrying the drug for delivery, nanoparticles can be engineered to carry specific compounds that will let them bind, or attach, to molecules on tumour cells. Once attached, they can safely deliver the drug to the specific tumour site.

Nanoparticles can also help with drug solubility. For a drug to work, it must be able to enter the bloodstream, which means it needs to be soluble. Some cancer drugs are insoluble and have to be dissolved in a delivery agent which causes an allergic reaction in patients. To overcome these issues, chemists have developed a nanoparticle out of naturally occurring protein which can carry the drug and make it soluble but without the allergic reactions.

Tumours commonly have blood vessels sprouting through and off them. These allow chemotherapy drugs to readily enter the tumour, but because chemotherapy molecules are so small, they also diffuse through the vessels and out of the tumour, attacking surrounding tissues. Nanoparticles are larger molecules that get trapped inside the tumour, where they do all the damage. Once they have delivered their drug cargo to cells, nanoparticles can be designed to break down into harmless by-products. This is particularly important for children, who are still developing.

Our Related Researchers:

A number of our researchers both past and present are doing some incredible work in the field of nanomedicine.


Professor Maria Kavallaris

Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program, Children’s Cancer Institute

Founding Director, Australian Centre for Nanomedicine

The recipient of Cure Cancer Australia grants in 1999 and 2003, Maria’s outstanding contributions to cancer research include the pioneering use of nanotechnology. She has made seminal contributions to understanding the mechanisms of action and resistance to cancer therapy, including the identification of how some tumours can grow and spread in the body. Maria has applied this knowledge to develop effective and less toxic cancer therapies using nanotechnology.

Maria has gone on to secure over $45 million in research funding since receiving her Cure Cancer Australia grants. Her contributions to the field have been recognised by numerous national and international awards and prizes. She has also mentored and trained over 50 students and postdoctoral researchers throughout the course of her career.

Several of our current grant recipients and alumni work with or alongside Professor Kavallaris at the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine.


Dr Orazio Vittorio

Project Leader, Children's Cancer Institute: Tumour Biology and Targeting Program

Dr Vittorio joined CCI and the UNSW Australian Centre for Nanomedicine in 2013 when awarded a highly competitive Vice Chancellor's Postdoc Research Fellowship to conduct research under the mentoring of Prof Maria Kavallaris. His research is focussed on the development of innovative strategies for the treatment of neuroblastoma and glioblastoma with nano-modified natural antioxidants.

Orazio is supported by Sydney Airport


Dr Angelica Merlot.

Scientia Research Fellow, Children’s Cancer Institute

Angelica (who is also working with Prof Kavallaris) focuses her current research on the characterisation of specific molecular pathways involved in cancer progression and metastasis, and the development of nanoparticles to improve drug delivery.

Angelica is co-funded by Cure Cancer Australia and Cancer Australia and supported by the Can Too Foundation


Dr George Sharbeen

Pancreatic Cancer Researcher, UNSW

Dr George Sharbeen focuses his work on identifying new therapeutic targets for treating pancreatic cancer. Once a target is identified, George and his team use a novel nanoparticle - developed in the lab of well-known researcher Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips (CCA grants 2009 and 2012) in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine – to inhibit it in models of pancreatic cancer and stop tumours from spreading.

“Our achievements to date include the identification of proteins in cell walls as therapeutic targets, and the development of a nanoparticle that can travel through the blood stream, enter pancreatic tumour cells and inhibit any target of interest,” says George.

George is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation


Dr Josh McCarroll

Project Leader: Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at Children’s Cancer Institute and the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine, UNSW (grant 2011)

The focus of Dr McCarroll's research has been to develop therapies which increase the efficiency of chemotherapy drugs while reducing toxic side-effects to normal cells. His research interests include:
• identifying new drug targets using RNAi in childhood (neuroblastoma, brain cancer) and adult (lung, pancreatic) cancers.
• designing nanomaterials which can encapsulate high amounts of therapeutic drugs and deliver them to cancer cells.
• examining the therapeutic potential of novel nanomedicines in preclinical in vitro and in vivo cancer models.


Dr Nicholas Fletcher

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Advanced Imaging and Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology

Nicholas’s current research focuses on developing new, targeted treatments for triple-negative breast cancer using nanotechnology. Primarily, he has worked on developing polymeric nanoparticles as both diagnostic and therapeutic materials.

Using nanomedicine devices, therapeutic drugs are delivered to tumours at the same time as imaging agents, which allow Nick and his team to track where the particles go.’

By using components on the nanoscale, Nick and his colleagues can take advantage of physical, chemical and biological interactions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. ‘I hope the research I’m doing may help push the development of targeted nanomedicines,’ he says.


Nick is solely supported by The Can Too Foundation


The discovery of new and effective therapies to treat cancer would not be possible without research. Please continue to support this incredible work, so that we can one day live in a world where the threat of cancer has been eliminated for good.


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