Prof Nikola Bowden

Prof Nikola Bowden 
(Image provided by HMRI)

Success: DNA repair breakthrough & repurposing drugs for melanoma combination therapy

Cancer type: Skin cancer

Prof Nikola Bowden is a Professor and the Co-Director of the Centre for Drug Repurposing and Medicines Research at the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI). She was awarded the Young Tall Poppy Science Award in 2015. 


Each year in Australia, over 17,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma, and the number of cases continues to rise. For non-melanoma types of skin cancer, the number is up to 400,000 people per year. Unfortunately, 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer in their lifetime. 

A skin cancer that develops from chronic UV exposure, melanoma is the most life-threatening  form of skin cancer, with Australians having the highest rate in the world. While survival rates are high for early-stage melanoma, they drop drastically to as low as 26.2% for advanced melanoma patients, who have a poor prognosis. 

Melanoma  is incredibly hard to treat due to its invasive nature and high resistance to chemotherapy, which typically functions by targeting the DNA of cancer cells, causing substantial damage that ultimately leads to their demise. Under normal circumstances, a cell's DNA repair pathway either repairs the damage, such as in the case of sunburn, or triggers a process instructing the cell to self-destruct when the damage is severe. 

However, in melanoma, this critical pathway malfunctions, rendering traditional chemotherapy less effective. As a result, traditional chemotherapy has little to no effect, and the cancerous cells continue to accumulate damage and grow, which poses a significant challenge to delivering effective treatment. 

Research success in melanoma treatment

Prof Nikola Bowden aims to deliver personalised diagnosis and treatment to advanced melanoma patients who have limited treatment options. Her Cure Cancer-funded project focused  on the DNA repair processes and new biomarkers for this life-threatening disease. 

With Cure Cancer funding support in 2010 and 2013, Prof Nikola investigated the genes (known as nucleotide excision repair) that correlate with sun exposure and melanoma aggression and progression, by using state-of-the-art analysis. She was able to prove her breakthrough hypothesis that DNA repair is deficient in melanoma. Because of these findings, it is possible to alter the treatment to restore the process of DNA repair.

“I was thrilled to find out I had been awarded these Cure Cancer grants – it was such a huge help and it allowed me to progress my previous research breaking down the melanoma barriers.”

As a brilliant Cure Cancer alumnae, Prof Nikola’s discovery has led to ongoing clinical trials focused on a novel combination therapy, repurposing two drugs that have existed for decades. While these drugs are ineffective on their own, when combined and used in a different way, they can switch DNA repair back on and activate the immune system to fight cancer cells. This is important because advanced melanoma patients sometimes have weeks to live and it takes years for new drugs to be developed. 

Prof Nikola’s combination therapy has already proven its potential to become an affordable, easy-to-access and effective treatment that prolongs the lives of advanced melanoma patients. In recent clinical trials, she and her team treated 40 patients and the results have been exceptionally promising, with nearly all participants still thriving.

Currently, Prof Nikola Bowden is applying her original melanoma research to finding new treatments for people with treatment-resistant ovarian cancer by repurposing existing drugs. It just goes to show the far-reaching impacts of funding cutting-edge research, which is only possible with your support. 

Together, we can cure cancer.

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