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L’Oréal Fellowship winner seeks to improve blood cancer treatments

A desire to improve the survival of people with blood cancers and reduce the side-effects of their anti-cancer treatments has seen Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Kylie Mason today win one of three 2012 L'Oral Australia For Women in Science Fellowships.

The work of Dr Mason, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the institute's Cancer and Haematology division and a clinical haematologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, has set the benchmark for evaluating a new class of anti-cancer agents called BH3-mimetics.

In 2006 Dr Mason was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team which found that the BH3-mimetic ABT-737 ceased being effective in the presence of a protein called Mcl-1. "Mcl-1 is switched on in many tumours so this finding had significant repercussions for the development of BH3-mimetics, which hold promise for treating chemotherapy-resistant tumours," Dr Mason said.

Her subsequent studies showed that ABT-737 remained effective in killing chemotherapy-resistant tumours when combined with standard chemotherapy. They also revealed the first chapters of a much bigger story: that of platelets and their lifespan.

One of the side-effects of treatment with ABT-737 is acute thrombocytopenia (low platelet count). Dr Mason's studies have shown that while ABT-737 is directly toxic to circulating platelets, it does not affect their production in the bone marrow. "This finding provided the first indication that platelets could undergo programmed cell death," Dr Mason said.

In collaboration with Dr Ben Kile and others at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Dr Mason showed that platelets the blood cells responsible for clotting are programmed to die, containing a molecular 'clock' that dictates their lifespan.

"This work has profound implications for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders that affect platelets," she said. "It also has critical implications for improved blood bank storage of platelets. The possibility of manipulating platelets to enhance their life span and increase storage life could revolutionise platelet transfusion therapy."

Dr Mason said she would use some of the $25,000 L'Oral Fellowship to attend the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting where she will present data on the BH3-mimetic and platelet projects. "Receiving the fellowship is a great honour. As well as facilitating the professional interactions that will be available to me at the haematology meeting, the fellowship will allow me to employ a research assistant and continue the research program while I am fulfilling my clinical commitments."

Dr Mason is the fourth Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientist to receive a L'Oral Australia For Women in Science Fellowship. Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat received the fellowship in 2010 for her breast cancer research, Marnie Blewitt (2009) for her research on epigenetics and Dr Erika Cretney (2008) for her studies of the immune system.

Contact: Penny Fannin
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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