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Impeccable pedigree

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 7 October 2013

Professor Gail Risbridger has a particular skill, and she worked out early how best to apply it in a field of research that is at a very exciting stage ­— prostate cancer

Look up the definition of “focused” ... there should be a picture of Professor Gail Risbridger next to it.

Professor Risbridger is one of Australia’s leading researchers into prostate cancer. She is a National Health and Medical Research Council Research Fellow and a career academic and researcher, and is now director of Monash University’s Centre for Urological Research in Melbourne.

She studied at Monash and at the University of Edinburgh, and won an International Fulbright Senior Scholar Award that took her to the University of California, San Francisco, and into the heart of one of the leading “families” of cancer biology, led by Professor Gerald Cunha.

And none of that happened by accident.

“I knew what I wanted to do”, Professor Risbridger tells the MJA.

“I’d worked in andrology research for many years. Prostate cancer 12 to 15 years ago was just becoming more prominent in people’s awareness.

“I decided to switch fields and use my expertise in andrology to work on prostate cancer research.”

Her connection with the Cunha “family” — “a long line of cancer biologists out of Colorado” — was a crucial step.

“[Professor Cunha] taught me to do something that underpins my research to this day”, she says. “I learned how to grow and graft human tissue in mouse avatars.”

On her return to Australia in 2000, Professor Risbridger pulled together another set of crucial collaborations, this time with urologist Mark Frydenberg and pathologist John Pedersen.

“We’ve all worked together in a longstanding partnership that is highly productive”, she says.

“There’s a synergy between us that is very dynamic.

“That’s the foundation of this research work — making the right connections.”

Pedigree is important in research and, as part of the Cunha “family” and now with a collaboration of her own, Professor Risbridger and her colleagues have been able to set up a world-class laboratory and active specimen collection.

“You have to be able to get incredibly good specimens to do this research. We sit down and say, ‘this is what we need for this project’, and then the urologist and pathologist have to make sure we get the right bit of tissue from the patient specimens.

“Only a few labs around the world do work of this quality and ours is one of them”, she says.

These days, Professor Risbridger is focused on castration-tolerant cancer-repopulating cells. What that means is best left to the editor’s summary of her latest paper:

“In advanced stages, [prostate cancer] is typically treated with medications that mimic castration, depriving the tumor of androgen stimulation. Unfortunately, these cancers eventually become castration-resistant and begin to grow even in the absence of hormonal input. What isn’t known is how these cancer cells develop the ability to survive androgen deprivation, and whether some types of stem-like castration-resistant cells are already present in prostate cancer from early stages or evolve later during the course of treatment.”

Professor Risbridger and her colleagues are out to try and answer a whole series of questions about these stem-like cells.

“Are those types of cells present much earlier and are only revealed by castration? Do we need to really focus on the biology of these cells? Do they have mutations? Are they hypersensitive to low levels of antigens? Are they dangerous? Do we need to know about them earlier? Are they a critical component of how tumours develop?

“It’s really fundamental science — basic biology — but it is clinically relevant because understanding tumour heterogeneity is essential if we are to interpret biomarkers that correctly diagnose or predict latent from aggressive localised disease. As we enter the era of personalising treatment for patients with all types of prostate cancer, the biology is a critical step in the process. Prostate cancer research is at a really exciting stage”, she says.

Professor Risbridger, who says she has a “strong feminist streak”, is well on her way to creating a research family of her own. She has two daughters; one is a second-year resident, and the other is about to complete her medical degree.

“I’m going to take some credit for the fact they are very capable women who will be researchers and clinicians”, she says.

“Their father is a researcher ... their pedigree is research.”

Tellingly, Professor Risbridger’s favoured hobby is “a lot of very fine needlework”.

“You’ve either got the hands or you haven’t”, she says.

Movember (the charity that raises awareness of, and raises funds for, prostate cancer, through men growing mostaches during November each year)is coming up and Professor Risbridger is keen to give the charity and its partner, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia (PCFA), credit for their fundraising efforts.

“Prostate cancer research is significantly supported by external funding agencies like PCFA and Movember, who also value collaboration and are well networked internationally non-governmentally”, she says.

“They have done as much, if not more, for prostate cancer research than anyone.”

It’s a partnership, and that, according to Professor Risbridger, is crucial to any successful assault on prostate cancer, or any cancer for that matter.

“Linking in with key people, coming up with something, that’s vital. The work I’m doing today is only one example.

“Synergy ... chemistry ... that is what is important and that is how it has to be done. Often clinicians don’t have PhDs or extensive laboratories. Collaborations are the key.

“These days, if you look at big collaborative institutions and groups, it is always clinicians working alongside scientists.”

  • Cate Swannell


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