Where are they now? Alumna in focus

Where are they now? Alumna in focus

Illuminate newsletter index page, March 2019
March 2019

Samantha Oakes is passionate about finding better ways
to treat the most aggressive forms of cancer.

Samantha Oakes (2008–2012) talks about her work as Group Leader Cell Survival Group at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and her passion for finding better ways to treat the most aggressive forms of cancer.

What do you currently do?

I am head of the Cancer Cell Survival group at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. The focus of my lab is to understand the ways in which cancer cells learn how to survive, spread throughout the body and contribute to chemotherapeutic resistance. It is my hope that an understanding of these processes may lead to better and improved drug combinations for advanced cancers.

Describe your research achievements at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

During my time as a post-doctoral scientist in the labs of professors Jane Visvader and Geoff Lindeman, I showed that the BCL-2 antagonist ABT-737 could be used to sensitise triple negative breast cancer cells to routine chemotherapy (Oakes et al 2012, PNAS).

ABT-737 was a lead compound (a drug that serves as a starting point to better drugs) that led to the development of the Australian TGA approved drug venetoclax (VENCLAXTA) for the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. A clinical trial of venetoclax led by Professor Lindeman has now shown impressive results in ER+ and BCL-2 positive breast cancers. I am incredibly proud that my research at the Institute may have contributed (even in a small way) to the development and success of this drug in solid tumours.

What was the journey from your studies to where you are now?

I always knew I wanted to be a scientist as I was drawn to science from an early age, helping look after the rats and fish in the science labs at school. I still remember learning about the human heart, thinking how could something so complicated and perfect exist in nature? I never ever wanted to be anything but a scientist apart from managing an extracurricular mathematics school for a couple of years prior to starting a PhD. I now know how useful this part of my career was, providing me with excellent teaching and management skills that I still use today in my lab.

My career progression from PhD to post-doctoral scientist was relatively easy with good support from the National Breast Cancer Foundation as an early career researcher. Being at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for my post-doc also provided me with incredible opportunities to learn and develop into a better researcher. I still miss being at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

The transition from post-doctoral scientist to independent lab head has been far more challenging with the success rates of grant and fellowship funding seemingly always dropping, but thanks to the generosity of the Cancer Council NSW and philanthropic donors (e.g. Cue Clothing Company and the Mostyn Family Foundation), I have managed to continue to produce great research and I am excited about my recent work and the potential it has for attracting new funding and ultimately improved outcomes for patients.

What are you most passionate about?

I am totally passionate about finding better ways to treat the most aggressive forms of cancer, as I have lost friends and family to cancer and I remain a full-time researcher to see this goal achieved.

I do, however, believe in maintaining a good work/life balance so I am mad about surfing. I have 11 surfboards and I compete in several surfing competitions locally and on the east coast of Australia. If I am not with my kids or in the lab, you will find me at the local surf break.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

A lot of people are surprised that as well as surfing, I also enjoy a little time on my guitar. I love playing and singing to my kids with the AMP turned up pretending to be a bit of a rock star!

What are your professional highlights?

Apart from my achievements at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, I am very proud of the recent work that came out of my own lab at the Garvan Institute. Leading on from the understanding I gained from training at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, we defined a new role for the BCL-2 like survival protein myeloid cell leukaemia 1 (MCL-1), as a regulator of SRC family kinase (SFK) signalling during invasion, signalling that is important for the growth and spread of cancers.

My lab showed that that targeting this very important survival protein could increase sensitivity of triple negative breast cancers to SRC family kinase inhibitors (e.g. Spycel) that had largely failed in clinical trials as single agents (Young et al 2017, Breast Cancer Research; Young et al 2017 Cell Adhesion and Migration). I am now exploring this discovery in other cancers such as pancreatic and prostate cancer and the results look great.

Where are you now?

We'd love to hear from our alumni about your life and work after leaving the Institute. Get in touch with Belinda Zipper, alumni relations adviser: alumni@wehi.edu.au, 03 9345 2928.

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