Dr Ashleigh Poh

Targeting the HCK protein to fight pancreatic cancer

Ashleigh is co-funded with Cancer Australia and Pancare Foundation

Ashleigh is a Postdoctoral Pancreatic Cancer Researcher at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Victoria. She received her PhD from The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and The University of Melbourne in 2017.

The Research

In her Cure Cancer-supported research she is working on a protein known as haematopoietic cell kinase (HCK), which is found in a type of immune cell known as a macrophage. Macrophages are a major component of solid cancers and usually have two major roles, Ashleigh explains. They can act as “garbage collectors” to remove unwanted debris or damaged cells, or they can act as “nurses” to facilitate wound-healing at sites of injury.

Her research has shown that the more HCK a macrophage has, the more it can promote tumour growth. Rather than acting as a garbage collector that cleans up cancer cells, these macrophages become excessive “wound-healers” that help cancer cells survive. She has demonstrated in the lab, however, that when treated with an anti-HCK drug, macrophages lose their ability to promote the growth of over six tumour types, including stomach and colon cancer.

Ashleigh is now extending her observations to assess the therapeutic benefit of targeting HCK in pancreatic cancer, which has an extremely poor survival rate. By doing so she aims to gain better insight into the role of macrophages in the progression of the disease and develop new drugs to attack tumours. ‘Ultimately, we aim to translate these findings from bench to bedside to deliver better treatment options for patients,’ she explains.

The Importance of Funding

For Ashleigh, the Cure Cancer grant represents an invaluable opportunity to drive her own research. As the principal investigator, she will be collaborating with a multidisciplinary team of biochemists, surgeons and biologists in the project.

‘I’ve lost family members to cancer, so the research I do is more than just a job,’ she says. ‘I’ve had the opportunity to connect with survivors, patients and their families. Their positivity and resilience is a major driving force behind my passion for medical research, and my goal to contribute to a better understanding of this disease.”

She is extremely grateful to Cure Cancer and its funding partners for their support of her research. “I’d also like to thank the volunteers, donors and grant reviewers for dedicating their time and effort towards finding a cure for cancer.”