A Rewarding Obsession – CONCERT Bridging Grant Awardee – Dr Tara Roberts

As a child, Dr Tara Roberts spent long days playing in dusty museum archives and soon became fascinated with science.

“I blame my mother for my science obsession. Mum worked in the Queensland museum and I spent many days there during school holidays,” Roberts explains.

And thank goodness for that. It has been Roberts’ obsession with science which has been the driving force behind her commitment to medical research.

Dr Roberts was recently awarded the CONCERT Bridging Grant to investigate how changes in individual patient cancer cells determine how fast the cancer tumour grows and how the patient responds to treatment. Specifically, her key projects focus on blood, lung, bladder and brain cancers.

Arising from her previous work in immunology, Roberts discovered an association between the loss of a gene called SMG1 and an increase in the incidence of lung tumours and blood cancers. Delving into this finding, Roberts then discovered a correlation between the loss of SMG1 and an increase in a critical protein complex called mTOR. Known for its role in driving growth, the mTOR pathway has been linked to signaling pathways which cause cancer proliferation.

Taking these findings into her research into leukaemia, Roberts discovered similar results.    

“In the case of leukaemia we identified a new change in leukaemia cells which occurs in 30% of patients,” says Roberts.

Specifically, what Roberts and her team identified was that these patients were missing the protein encoded by the SMG1 gene in their blood whilst mTOR signaling in these patients was increased.

Understanding this difference explains why many patients are unresponsive to drug treatments.

Turning her attention to the role of mTOR inhibitor drugs, Roberts found a link between cancer growth suppression and increased cancer cell death when these cells were exposed to an experimental mTOR inhibitor drug.

“There are currently multiple drug treatments for leukaemia and this research helps to find the characteristics of individual patient tumours which can tell us which drug is most appropriate for them,” Roberts explains.

This interest continues to expand and currently involves projects aiming to personalise treatment for patients with lung, brain, bladder and colorectal cancer as well.

When Dr Roberts was a little girl she played in museums and obsessed about science. Today, she strives so that her work will, one day, help deliver more personalised and effective treatments for cancer sufferers. Now that is a great reward for obsession.

By Linda Music