Kevin Spring’s “alternative” career path leads to major cancer research discoveries

By Linda Music

From a potential geologist to a highly-cited cancer researcher and educator, Kevin Spring is CONCERT’S Member of the month

If Associate Professor Kevin Spring’s family background and childhood is anything to go by, he should have become a geologist. After all, his grandfather was a professor of geology, a subject that Kevin himself excelled at in high school. Indeed, geology was a family affair and many great memories were made when Kevin’s father took the family prospecting for gem stones in outback Queensland.

But he also had a fascination with biology and, as a young boy, was curious about how living things work. Luckily for the world of cancer research, biology won with Kevin choosing to study biology at university. It was there he was introduced to biomedical research.

Professor Kevin Spring was fascinated with biology from a young age.

“That was pretty much it for me as I enjoyed the discovery and satisfaction that scientific research afforded, especially when the results substantiated the theory,” said Kevin.

After completing his PhD at University of Queensland where he investigated homologous recombination and gene targeting, Kevin applied his findings in his early research and successfully engineered the first missense knock-in mouse model of ATM, a mutation that is seen in the cancer prone syndrome, Ataxia Telangiectasia (AT).

“My research involved investigating the DNA damage response using AT as a model to understand the underlying mechanism and effects mutations caused to those pathways,” he explains.

“It was incredibly interesting as cells deficient in ATM exhibit radiosensitivity and breakage of DNA that could not be repaired properly and caused cancer. During that time, it was the heyday of discovery for ATM: understanding how cells respond to, and repair, DNA damage. Our team published a number of seminal contributions to the field in high-ranking journals such as Nature and Nature Genetics.”

Although Kevin found his work fascinating, he wanted his research to have more of a clinical translational focus and so began his long-term interest in colorectal cancer. Working with Professor Barbara Leggett, a highly regarded Gastroenterologist and with the eminent gastrointestinal pathologist, Professor Jeremy Jass, Kevin began researching colorectal polyps and the subset of colorectal cancers that display microsatellite instability and methylation. These cancers, located mainly in the proximal colon, are more prevalent in elderly females and have an interesting molecular profile.

A/Professor Spring’s research in this area was widely recognised with papers published in prestigious journals GUT and Gastroenterology.

“We performed pioneering work on the neoplastic pathway associated with this subject and contributed significantly to the scientific literature. Our work also had a significant impact on clinical guidelines for the endoscopic management and removal of non-adenomatous polyps of the colon,” says Kevin.

To add to his research interests, Kevin is highly involved in the field of liquid biopsy research.

“This is a recently emerging field that was first introduced to me by Prof Paul de Souza when I took up my current academic position at WSU in medical oncology in 2013. The incredible scope of clinical application of this approach in guiding and monitoring cancer treatment and response was immediately understood and has been a central theme to much of my current work.

“Ultimately, I look forward to the day when liquid biopsy is fully integrated into routine diagnostic practice.”

Kevin founded the Thomas Ashworth Symposium on CTCs and Liquid Biopsy in 2014 and  this symposium has grown  in significance  and is widely recognised as the peak national Liquid Biopsy conference bringing many international leaders in this field to Australia.

Adding a further research interest to his already well-established reputation, Kevin has, over the past four years, developed a clinical and translational informatics platform. This platform provides dynamic near real-time extractions of clinical data from source systems which, he explains, is of enormous importance to conducting better research involving patient data.

“The CTIS-Labmatrix plaform for clinical data management is a great achievement. What we designed and delivered is incredible in its scope and application for data linkage and enabling clinical research,” he explains.

If spending his life committed to research, publishing 61 papers with over 6200 citations to-date is not enough, Kevin also pushes himself in physical pursuits.

 “I have a passion for high altitude cool climate trekking and in 2017 trekked to Mt Everest base camp in Nepal. I’ve also trekked in the Japanese alps, New Zealand, Tasmania, Yosemite and the high Sierra.”

Kevin also enjoys running and has run many 10km fun runs, a few half marathons and a full marathon.

As CONCERT Fellow, Kevin has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to cancer research. Indeed, it is a surety that the world of cancer research would not be the same had Kevin pursued his family’s passion and become a geologist. CONCERT is definitely grateful he did not.