Blood cancer research

Investigating a novel approach to overcome acute myeloid leukaemia treatment resistance

Dr Heather Murray

Dr Heather Murray's 2024 grant is generously funded by the Bobbin Head Cruising Club.

She is based at The University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI). 

Dr Heather Murray is a Cancer Institute NSW ECR Fellow and researcher in the Molecular Oncology group headed by A/Prof Nikki Verrills at the University of Newcastle. She had always been drawn to STEM in high school, so naturally, she pursued a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and earned her PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2020. It was there that she saw how science could be used to improve treatments for people living with cancer and found her passion for cancer research.

Acute myeloid leukaemia

Every year, about 1,100 people in Australia are diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which tends to affect older adults. AML is one of the most aggressive blood cancers with a low 5-year survival rate of under 30%. 

Dr Heather Murray’s research at the University of Newcastle aims to improve survival outcomes for people living with AML by investigating a novel approach to overcome treatment resistance in AML patients.

“Because AML is considered relatively rare, it hasn’t received as much research focus as more common cancers. The onset of symptoms is very sudden and the disease develops rapidly, so it is very difficult to treat. However, survival rates have been steadily increasing over recent years and I have hope that further research will see this trend continue,” she says.

Dr Heather Murray's research

While the standard-of-care treatment for AML has been intensive chemotherapy, it is highly toxic and ineffective for many patients. Venetoclax, a promising targeted therapy with fewer side effects, has led to better results, with most patients achieving complete remission from their cancer with venetoclax combination therapies. However, about 30% of patients do not respond to this novel treatment and another 30% respond well but will eventually develop treatment resistance and relapse. 

Heather aims to identify which patients will benefit from venetoclax treatment and which patients will not as soon as they are diagnosed, which will reduce the number of patients who receive ineffective treatment so they can seek out alternative therapies.

“Every case of AML is different, and most therapies will not be effective for every patient. We need to develop precision therapies that are specifically tailored for a patients cancer. This involves identifying the specific features of different AML cells that are driving them to grow, divide and spread. We can then use this information to try to develop therapies that target these specific features,” says Heather. 
She hopes her findings will be rapidly translated into clinical trials to accelerate the discovery of new treatments.

The inspiration

Heather is continuously inspired by the AML patients who have donated samples of their blood and bone marrow to cancer research. 

“Every time a new sample comes into the lab, I am reminded that these cancer cells have come from a patient – someone’s Mum or Dad, brother or sister, friend. Someone whose life has been turned upside down by this awful diagnosis. This is what motivates me to keep working towards a cure,” she says.

The importance of cancer research funding

Heather tells us that some of the challenges of being an emerging researcher involve juggling the competing demands of writing grants to fund her research, managing the responsibility of supervising staff and students, overseeing research projects, and regularly being in the lab to conduct experiments. 

It’s no secret that in a highly competitive environment, funding for new researchers is scarce. 

“Ultimately, this funding will allow me to continue my work in developing improved precision therapy options for AML patients. By helping to fund early-career researchers, you will not only advance vital cancer research, but also support the future of research.”

“Our early-career researchers are the future of research! We need to support them to build a strong foundation for the future. Dedicated funding bodies like Cure Cancer give early-career researchers the support they need to be able to compete with more senior researchers.”

Heather's 2023 grant was generously funded by Cure Cancer's BarbeCURE®. Her funding has been extended thanks to the wonderful people at Bobbin Head Cruising Club.

Together, we can cure cancer.

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