Children's Cancer Institute's Michelle Haber recognised with a Eureka Nomination

25 Jul 2018

Cancer is diagnosed in more than 950 children and adolescents in Australia every year. Professor Michelle Haber AM, of Children's Cancer Institute and UNSW, was today announced as a finalist for the 2018 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science, sponsored by CSIRO for her pivotal work in developing the Zero Childhood Cancer program, designed specifically to ensure that those children diagnosed with aggressive cancer have the best possible chance of surviving and doing so with a high quality of life.

Zero Childhood Cancer started with a pilot study in late 2015 by Children’s Cancer Institute in Sydney and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital. The premise behind Zero Childhood Cancer is that because every child’s cancer is unique, to improve survival rates the precise molecular and biological profile of each child’s cancer needs to be identified using complex laboratory tests to enable recommendation of an individual personalised treatment plan.

The national program means that every child who presents with high risk cancer, either at diagnosis or following relapse, will have their tumour undergo extensive genetic profiling, and in parallel, their tumour cells will be subjected to detailed laboratory analysis to determine the response of the tumour sample to a range of anti-cancer drugs, which collectively will help identify the treatments most likely to kill each child’s specific cancer and give them the greatest possible chance of survival.

At a time when the rest of the world is embracing the potential of personalised medicine to improve patient outcomes, the Zero Childhood Cancer program is the most comprehensive precision medicine program for children with aggressive cancer internationally.

Despite the significant advances that have been made, some childhood cancers still have very low survival rates, and even the children who survive their disease often have serious long-term side effects due to the drugs used to treat them. “It is these children with the most aggressive cancers who stand to benefit most from the innovations offered by the Zero Childhood Cancer national personalised medicine program,” Professor Haber said.

Last year, the Zero Childhood Cancer national clinical trial was launched for every child in Australia with the worst cancers, involving genomic profiling and individual chemotherapeutic drug testing in the laboratory, to provide the best possible treatment for each child in real time.

According to Professor Haber, the challenge in curing each child of cancer is that the precise genetic and biologic makeup of each child’s cancer is different. “That’s why I’m excited about the Zero Childhood Cancer personalised medicine program that we’ve established – the single largest initiative in the country ever undertaken for children with cancer,” she said.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when announcing a $5 million grant for the Zero Childhood Cancer program, said that the program will mean more than 200 children – around 50 every year – with high-risk brain cancer will now be included in the program from right across Australia. “This is about giving each and every child the best possible chance at a better life,” he said.

According to Professor Grant McArthur, Executive Director, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre and Head of the Cancer Therapeutics Program at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the nomination is well deserved. “Professor Haber is an inspirational leader of innovation without peer. She has remarkable capacity to lead complex translational research programs that have seen direct translation of basic science discoveries into clinical application including the devastating childhood cancer neuroblastoma,” he said.

Professor Haber said she is thrilled to be selected, for a second time as a Eureka finalist for her leadership in medical research.

Professor Haber has a long history in childhood cancer research, having been the inaugural postdoctoral scientist appointed at Children’s Cancer Institute when the labs first opened in 1984, and has worked there ever since. She is now Executive Director, as well as leading one of the Institute’s research programs to identify molecular targets and develop new cancer therapies.

“I’m delighted to have led the Institute as Executive Director since 2003. Ours is the only research institute in Australia wholly dedicated to childhood cancer research.

“I’m particularly proud of the talented researchers who come to work each day in the lab to realise the vision of the Institute’s founders, two fathers of children with cancer. We’ve seen childhood cancer go from being almost a death sentence barely 50 years ago, to today where survival rates are around 80%, and that has been achieved solely through medical research.”

Professor Haber will attend the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes Award Dinner 29th August 2018 when the winners will be announced.