Blood cancer research

Uncovering the unknown biology of acute myeloid leukaemia to develop novel targeted therapies

Dr Emily Gruber

Dr Emily Gruber’s research is funded by Cure Cancer

She is based at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre  and University of Melbourne

Dr Emily Gruber is a Postdoctoral Scientist within the Lev Kats lab at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, where she leads the ‘Epigenetic targeting of blood cancers’ project. As a molecular biologist, she is deeply passionate about leukaemia research and views it as tackling a complex puzzle that provides the crucial groundwork to ultimately benefit patients in Australia and worldwide. 

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

Around 1,100 Australians are diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) every year. Unfortunately, this aggressive type of blood cancer has a 5-year survival rate of less than 30% despite recent advances in novel targeted therapies. 

While many patients will enter remission, the majority of them rapidly relapse, develop drug resistance, and will succumb to AML. Standard treatments such as high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation also have harsh side effects, leading to further health problems and are associated with a high number of deaths.

Dr Emily Gruber’s acute myeloid leukaemia research

“I enjoy AML research as it is like a large complex puzzle to solve and lays the critical foundation for improving outcomes for cancer patients. I am particularly interested in (1) identifying novel treatment strategies, and (2) understanding what drives response and resistance to targeted therapies.” 

- Dr Emily Gruber

Dr Emily Gruber aims to improve patient outcomes by identifying new biological processes that can be targeted during treatment to eliminate AML cells with minimal impact on normal, healthy tissues. To achieve this, she will study the ways in which crucial metabolic pathways undergo rewiring when normal blood cells become cancerous, which drives uncontrolled growth. One such metabolic pathway involves heme, an understudied small molecule that is essential to all cells and performs vital biological functions such as oxygen transport and the regulation of gene expression. 

Emily and her team have observed in their preliminary research that leukemic cells produce less heme compared with healthy cells, which could promote the expression of genes that enable leukemic cells to maintain their cancerous state. These reduced heme levels are also likely to increase the reliance of leukaemia cells on alternate pathways for survival, which offers a promising area for drug development. 

By using pharmacological agents, a gene editing technology called CRISPR, and RNA sequencing, Emily will identify the genes that are controlled by heme and investigate the ways in which they are regulated in AML. These novel findings on the essential, currently unknown biological features of AML have broader implications because they may lead to the use of heme levels as a biomarker for drugs in clinical use or advanced clinical development. There is also potential to use the dysregulated heme metabolism of AML as a target for repurposing existing drugs and developing new drugs.

The importance of funding cancer research

Emily’s perspective as a new mum underscores the importance of gender equity in STEM. “When I was a student, female lab heads told me not to have children until I became a lab head. I think this advice stemmed from a lack of funding opportunities for early-career researchers and decreased research output during maternity leave, which in turn makes it even more difficult to secure funding.”

“Follow your passion and find a lab that will support you, promote upskilling, encourage collaboration, and most importantly, work well together. Although perhaps cliché, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ applies to research; we can accomplish far more as a team than if we are to work in isolation.​”

When Emily isn’t in the lab, she spends her time with her smiley and curious 5-month-old. As a new mum and dedicated researcher, she currently doesn’t have much time for her hobbies, but is passionate about drawing and immersing herself in musicals. 


“​​Funding from Cure Cancer is incredibly impactful for me as I learn to navigate a career in research as a new mum. This grant will help me achieve my career development objectives, specifically by extending my research, strengthening my track record, and building collaborative networks with leaders in the field. My long-term goal is to make significant contributions that will be of benefit to public health in Australia and worldwide.​”

Together, we can cure cancer.

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