Associate Professor Joan Heath

Associate Professor Joan Heath



Joan Heath in her office


Associate Professor

BA(Hons) MA Cambridge PhD CNAA

Laboratory Head

Lab Focus: New targets for cancer therapy

My laboratory is using zebrafish to discover genes that are indispensable for the growth of rapidly proliferating tissues during development. Typically, these genes are relatively silent during adulthood but are often re-activated by cancer cells later in life.

Using this approach, we identified several genes that may contribute to cancer development. We are currently testing whether they could be worthwhile targets for novel anti-cancer therapies.

To do this we are disrupting the activity of these genes in difficult-to-treat cancers, such as lung, liver, stomach and bowel cancer. Collectively these cancers cause nearly half of all cancer deaths globally, and new therapies are urgently needed.

Research interest

Research in the Heath laboratory is influenced by the recognition that many of the dynamic processes that occur during development are also highly active or dysregulated in cancer, such as cell proliferation, differentiation, migration, angiogenesis, and apoptosis. Using a forward genetic screen in zebrafish, we identified several genes that are critical for the rapid expansion of the digestive organs (liver, pancreas and intestine) during development.

We are now investigating whether the aberrant expression of these genes plays a role in the development of lung, liver, stomach and colon cancer. We expect these studies will enable us to propose new targets for cancer therapy.

Four researchers photographed in front of a painting

WEHI has joined forces with leading science and technology company Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on a drug discovery campaign to find new cancer therapeutics.

Zebrafish swimming

Why are zebrafish increasingly used in medical research? Joan Heath writes in The Conversation.

Transparent zebrafish

Joan Heath writes about using zebrafish in cancer research, in The Scientist.

Associate Professor Joan Heath in the laboratory

Joan Heath and colleagues discovered a genetic defect that can halt cell growth and force cells into a death-evading survival state.