Cancer genetics & biology RESEARCH

Developing new ways to improve cancer therapy

Dr Vivian Kahl

Vivian’s research grant is funded through the Priority-driven Cancer Support Scheme. Her Cure Cancer grant is funded by The Can Too Foundation.

Vivian is a research officer at the Children’s Medical Research Institute in Sydney. She has been interested in molecular biology since she was a teenager in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

During her Bachelor’s degree at Lutheran University of Brazil she developed a passion for human genetics, specifically how genes are affected by environmental and occupational conditions and how this can contribute to the development of cancer.

The Research

Telomeres are tiny segments of DNA that cap the ends of human chromosomes. Their length is an indication of the health of cells, and short telomeres are associated with an increased risk of age-related diseases, including cancer. Moreover, there is growing evidence that lifestyle factors can influence telomere length.

Vivian is currently developing a new technique known as Telomere Fiber-FISH (TFF) to measure telomere lengths and what affects them, particularly in cancer cells. She aims to validate TFF in a panel of cancer cells to help provide a screening platform for new cancer therapies. The work has significant promise for prediction, diagnosis and treatment.

In her PhD, completed in early 2018, she studied workers exposed to pesticides and nicotine in tobacco fields, evaluating biomarkers including the length of telomeres. The higher incidence of bladder and lung cancer was associated with the shortest telomere lengths. Her efforts promoted growing awareness of the need to provide protective equipment for workers, and increased the tobacco industry’s awareness of their responsibility for farmers’ health. 

The Importance of Funding

Vivian began work in Australia just a year ago, and appreciates initiatives such as those of Cure Cancer, Can Too and Cancer Australia in supporting young researchers. ‘It strikes me how much Australians care, encourage and are proud of the achievements made in science.’

While government funds are important, they are insufficient to allow medical researchers to keep seeking and finding solutions, she says. Donations and fundraisers are therefore vital.

Vivian gets additional inspiration every day from the memory of her father, who died of bone sarcoma when she was only 10 years old, and more recently, her godfather who also died of cancer.

She advises people diagnosed with the disease to seek help around them: family, friends, community. ‘This can make the burden a little lighter.’

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