Adelaide is home to a little known, but world-leading cancer research centre which has big ambitions

Adelaide is home to a little known, but world-leading cancer research centre which has big ambitions

SOMETIMES, says Professor Angel Lopez, Adelaide can be a tad parochial.

The work he and his 200 colleagues perform at the Centre for Cancer Biology (CCB) is not to try and cure cancer just for South Australia he said, it goes far beyond.

“Ours is a global view and we collaborate with whoever it makes sense to collaborate with,” said the CCB joint founder and co-director.

His award, this week, of an Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen’s birthday honours is a nod to everyone embroiled in cancer research within the CCB’s warren of laboratories adjacent the old RAH.

“For distinguished service to medical and scientific research in the areas of immunology and cell biology and through innovative developments in cancer treatment, particularly acute myeloid leukaemia,” reads the citation. It’s a fair call for the 64-year-old Argentinian who landed in SA 32 years ago and will be in the vanguard of a move along North Terrace in March next year to the top four floors of a brand new UniSA building abutting Morphett Bridge.

Adelaide’s shiny new neighbour SAHMRI may catch the eye but the CCB is a powerhouse that has gone under the radar. The shift of the SA Health and UniSA partnership to the heart of the new medical precinct (aided by a $40 million federal government grant) will engender critical mass, five new professorial positions and an eventual headcount touching 280.

Great change but then prof Lopez has seen it all.

“I came here to work in immunology at the IMVS and in 1991 five of us founded the Hanson centre for cancer research, ” he said.

The CCB was then set up in 2009 by prof Lopez and co-director, prof Sharad Kumar.

“It’s a very good mix here, old and young, it’s a good index. When you set up your lab, you want a vibrant, exciting environment, you want to develop yourself as well,” prof Lopez said.

Indeed, the strictly non-medical job aspect is burgeoning, with finding the right people to the fore.

“We just got a very good group from Queensland to come and join us. Normally it is emigration, now we are beginning to bring people from interstate to SA. This new person, Guillermo Gomez, comes with his own fellowship, so it costs SA nothing and then he will create jobs by being here with his grant money.

“He comes with his own salary already paid from competitive grant funding, bringing two people from IMB.

“The director there is a friend of mine and a few years ago he was attracting two of my people there. It’s a free market and this time we talked about it and this guy felt Guillermo was very good.”

Indeed looking his flock to give them the infrastructure to work well with the intellectual support around them is a must.

“To identify the big question is hard and important. We always find it difficult to get the cutting edge infrastructure. We just won a big grant last year to get a ($1 million) super microscope, and people need things like that.

“This is what I really like, young people with lots of ideas. The oldies at CCB are all good at mentoring, we are very proud, people identify with this. This place is heavily weighted to the young, it’s our future. We are taking a bet on people, it’s an educated bet. We think we can identify the stars of the future and so far it’s worked really well.”

SAHMRI he said, is a collaborator, not a competitor.

“We are doing better in terms funding ($9 million last year), but we collaborate with them, help them. If we have two institutes in SA that can help each other we can flourish more than if it is just one.

“It’s not so much that people are selfish about their discoveries, it’s that they get too focused on what they are doing it’s my job to get them out of their shells, to get them to talk to other people and share the knowledge.

“It’s a bit like a soccer coach where you have people with the skills and need other people round them to pass the ball to them and then to move to the right position and create opportunities. My place is here to talk to them.

“It’s creating clever jobs. Every year we write grants to the federal government to employ young people with unique skills who can make more grants and make more opportunities to employ more people. It’s a virtual circle, people with good ideas help people develop other good ideas.

It’s a tough gig with success rate of grants of just 1 in 8.

“Our success rate is about twice the national average. The budget has not increased in many years and applications have gone steadily up until recently and with more demand.

“One of the things that worries me is you have these wonderful precincts going up in Brisbane and SA, but that’s the hardware. We need to provide funding for the software, for people that can go in there with ideas, like Guillermo. His job is for four years and then the fellowship ends and he is out of a job unless he gets another competitive fellowship.

“If the success rate is 1/3 or 1/4 it’s not a problem. But when it’s 1/8 it becomes a big problem because many good people are falling by the wayside.

Such work calls for personal, and physical, resilience.

“I still feel strong and full of beans, feel happy. I go to the gym once a week, play five a side with my eldest son on Monday nights, on Sunday I play with the over 35s, sometimes on Saturday too.

“I need to look after my own research because people here Google me and check how well I am doing. It’s not because I am co director that they respect me, it’s because I am publishing good journals and making discoveries and the antibody that is in clinical trial comes from my lab.

“When we made a commercial information agreement with CSL to advance anti body for acute myeloid Leukaemia, that was tremendous, one of our discoveries going around the world. It’s taken 15 years to get to this stage. A long road, when you realise everything you have done in the test tube, the mouse, is suddenly going to go into people, you realise this is something big happening here that could help humanity.

“If I wake up at night this is what I should be thinking about, not about how to keep people going.”

(published  Advertiser 17th June 2017)