Since our research funding program began in 1963, we have united Western Australia’s best and brightest researchers with generous members of our community, who share our vision of a cancer free future. Together, since 1963, we have contributed more than $60 million to fund 1236 local cancer research projects.
It is only through the generosity of the WA Community, that we can fund the many local cancer researchers who are on the cusp of breakthroughs, that have the potential to dramatically improve the way we prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.
There is a range of exciting research that’s being done right here in WA: from understanding how cancer works; the causes of cancer; research in preventing and detecting cancer; to work being done on potential new treatments; and improving cancer survivorship.
We recently sat down with Eric Alves, local cancer researcher and recipient of our 2021 Cancer Council WA PhD Top-Up Scholarship.
Q&A with Eric Alves
As a third year PhD student, Eric is working alongside his team, led by Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort, to develop a new drug that targets sneaky cancer cells to make them more receptive to therapy.
Eric is a researcher at The University of Western Australia, based at both the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the Institute for Immunology and Infectious Diseases (at Murdoch University), with his research partially funded by a Cancer Council WA research scholarship.
What inspires you as a researcher?
Delivering therapies and seeing patients benefit from new innovations.
Do you have any personal connection to cancer or a personal reason you entered this field of research?
Cancer is one of those things that touches everybody. Everyone knows someone who’s been hit by cancer, myself included. Our lab focuses on the development of new approaches to target cancers that are resistant to treatment and associated with poor outcomes, such as advanced-stage breast and ovarian cancers. The entire team has in one way or another been impacted by these cancers, so there’s a big push from all of us to see new therapies get to the clinic.
What inspired you to apply for the PhD Top Up Scholarship?
I applied for the Cancer Council WA PhD Top Up Scholarship because it isn’t just a scholarship – it provides an ongoing opportunity to connect with the community and keep engaged with the people we aim to help. Over the course of my PhD, Cancer Council WA has provided me with lots of opportunities, from lab tours, to involvement at events like the Pink Ribbon Ball. These are fantastic ways to connect with supporters and keep my eyes on the ultimate goal of positively contributing to this community, for which I am extremely grateful.
How did you feel when you found out you had received this scholarship?
Very excited! I applied in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and found out I got the scholarship during one of our lockdowns. It was a really nice boost when things were feeling low – a piece of great news!
How has this scholarship assisted you in your research?
Massively! This year, I did two advanced immunology and molecular biology courses over in Melbourne and Sydney, which were funded by the Cancer Council WA scholarship. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to access those courses, which have allowed me to bring innovative techniques back to WA and improve my own capacity to conduct research. Through these courses, I was also able to meet other researchers in the field, learn about the ways that they are approaching their own work and return with a better overview of the state of medical research as it stands today.
Tell us about your current research project.
My current project aims to develop a new immunotherapy. Immunotherapies work to boost the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
Current immunotherapies work by targeting your immune cells and trying to make them better cancer killers, however this treatment relies on the cancer cells successfully recognising where the cancer is. Some cancers, such as triple negative breast cancer, are sneaky and have ways of staying hidden from immune cells, meaning these drugs become ineffective. With this in mind, our treatment aims to target cancer cells directly using state-of-the-art gene editing technology and make them more visible and detectable, so these therapies can work and help immune cells eliminate the cancer.
How is your research progressing?
At this stage, we’ve been quite successful in designing the treatment and developing it to work in the laboratory. It’s been a big collaborative effort between us here in Perth, and those at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, to get this therapy up and running.
Over the next few months we’ll be looking at what the potential side effects might be.
The goal is to keep it WA based and grow it from there.
What do you find exciting about your current research project?
It’s a new way of tackling things. Current immunotherapy is largely focused on targeting your immune cells and trying to boost them, but we’re actually trying to go from the other side and target the cancer cells. It’s quite unique and exciting, and a novel way of thinking about immunotherapy. We’re also hoping it will spur on others to try new and innovative approaches to cancer research in the future.
How do you see your research making a difference, and to whom?
The ultimate goal is for our therapy to be a new treatment for breast cancer patients, in particular those who are triple negative.
I think that immunotherapy has the potential to have less side effects than other currently available cancer treatments. I believe it’s really important to have a drug that can be effective, with reduced side effects for the patient. I’m really looking forward to seeing that come to fruition.
What would you tell anyone considering applying for a PhD Top Up Scholarship?
Go for it! It’s a fantastic opportunity. It’s also a great stepping stone, and as someone who wants to follow the cancer research route, it’s a really awesome way to get involved with Cancer Council WA. Having a group that’s supportive and wants to see a real benefit for cancer patients, I think that’s the best thing you could ask for.
A word from Eric to our donors:
“Thank you so much for your generous donations.
Given research results aren’t immediate, I know sometimes progress can seem slow. However, some of the work that we’re doing is going to see so much benefit over the next few years.
Being supported by Western Australia really spurs me on to keep bringing breakthroughs to WA.”
Find out more
- Learn about our latest funding opportunities
- Apply for this year’s PhD Top Up Scholarship. Applications close 31 October 2022
- Donate to our cancer research projects