A passion for discovery

29 May 2020

In April 2020, leading Australian researcher Professor Jane Visvader FRS FAA FAHMS was elected to the Royal Society in recognition of her immense contributions to science. In this profile of Professor Visvader, she describes her career in cancer research and how science can shape a more equitable society.

Jane Visvader

A changing career trajectory

Molecular and cellular biologist Professor Jane Visvader FAA FRS FAHMS has dedicated her career to researching cancer development. Her key role in the landmark discovery of breast stem cells has changed the course of our understanding of breast cancer and initiated trials for promising new treatments.

After completing her PhD at the University of Adelaide, Visvader began postdoctoral research on cancer-causing genes at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, and then at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). She originally focused on blood cancer, investigating a biological process known as transcriptional regulation in blood cells and how this can trigger leukaemia.

In 1997, Visvader’s career trajectory changed dramatically after she was invited back to WEHI to set up a breast cancer laboratory. Along with her collaborator (and husband), oncologist Professor Geoff Lindeman, Visvader was headhunted by former WEHI Director Professor Suzanne Cory, who recognised the exceptional skills that both scientists could bring to the institute.

At the time, Visvader and Lindeman were based in Boston in roles attached to the Harvard Medical School. “Though we were both involved in different aspects of cancer research, neither of us knew anything about mammary gland development,” recalls Visvader. “It was a bit daunting, coming into a lab with no molecular or cellular tools. But we gradually built them up, with help from other labs in Australia and around the world.”

Visvader was able to apply the important lessons she had learnt in the blood field to begin fundamental research into breast development. “I wanted to understand the process of normal breast development, with a view to understanding how things go awry in breast cancer,” she says.

“This was an important challenge at the time, given that little was known about the cellular constituents of breast tissue, including stem cells, as well as the key molecular regulators that control breast cell fate.”

A profound discovery

Visvader and her team set to work illuminating the complex process of breast development, which required extensive cellular and animal research. After almost five years of intensive work, Visvader and her team made the remarkable discovery of identifying and isolating the stem cell that generates the entire breast, which was published in a 2006 Nature paper.

This discovery, which Visvader describes as a “eureka moment”, had profound implications for understanding the cellular origins of both normal and cancerous breast tissues. It allowed the team to delve into the origins of different types of breast cancer and ways in which they might be controlled. Their findings have since led to further research milestones, including identifying the cells from which different types of breast cancer arise.

The mouse models developed by Visvader’s team have proven to be an invaluable research tool. Not only are they able to illuminate the molecular processes during cancer development, they can be used for therapeutic solutions. By growing human breast cancer cells in mice, potential drugs can be tested for efficacy, paving the way for human clinical trials.

Building on the breakthrough

In 2010, Professor Doug Hilton (WEHI Director from 2010–present) appointed Visvader and Lindeman as heads of a new division at WEHI, ACRF Cancer Biology and Stem Cells. This opportunity allowed them to expand their efforts on breast cancer into other epithelial cancers of the ovary and lung (and more recently, rare forms of cancer). These types of cancers occur in epithelial tissue, which is present in the skin as well as covering and lining organs and internal passageways. “We were very grateful to direct this exciting new initiative,” says Visvader. “Epithelial malignancies account for more than 80 per cent of all cancers and are an area of pressing need.”

Along with associates, Visvader and Lindeman were successful in gaining funding from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) to support their research. The new division was fitted out with state-of-the-art facilities and they recruited three laboratory heads (all female) with specialised experience in lung and ovarian cancers: Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, Professor Clare Scott and Dr Kate Sutherland. The team focuses on the origins of cancer, as well as exploring new treatments. They also study how cancer cells respond to drugs using an extensive bank of patient-derived cancer samples, which helps elucidate why drug resistance occurs.

Division heads Visvader and Lindeman are a great team because of their complementary skills. “Because I’m a pure scientist, and Geoff is a clinician-scientist, we collaborate very closely, and can span molecular and cellular biology, as well as animal biology and use that to drive translational research,” explains Visvader. “It has given us huge scope to translate our findings at the bench to the clinic. As an example, our fundamental findings on susceptible cells in BRCA1 mutation carriers has now culminated in an international prevention trial for these women.”

In recognition of her immense contributions to science, Visvader was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2012. Professor Suzanne Cory, President of the Academy from 2010–2014, said Visvader’s work had led to the most significant advances in breast cancer research in the past decade. “Her achievements have inspired a new cadre of young leaders in the field of stem cells and cancer, creating a momentum that has the potential to improve the lives of Australians,” Cory said.

Professor Jane Visvader, Dr Nai Yang Fu, Dr Anne Rios and Professor Geoff Lindeman of the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer Division, WEHI.

Professor Jane Visvader, Dr Nai Yang Fu, Dr Anne Rios and Professor Geoff Lindeman of the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer Division, WEHI.

 

A source of inspiration

For Visvader, supporting early career researchers and contributing to gender equity outcomes has been a top priority. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that I have had the opportunity to supervise many talented scientists who have gone on to become successful independent researchers,” she says. “The majority of these have been women.”

Visvader believes that ensuring gender and cultural diversity in research not only promotes equity and inclusion, but also leads to better science. “Equity and diversity are such important factors in science as different perspectives and critical thinking allow for more creativity, as well as better designed experiments and data interpretation.”

Visvader credits her success to perseverance, a passion for discovery and collaboration. “I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors over the years, most recently, Jerry Adams and Suzanne Cory (both Fellows of the Royal Society) who have helped shape my career,” she says. “Looking back over the past years as a laboratory head, I have been privileged to work with a wonderful team of both national and international scientists from many corners of the world.”

Her election to the Royal Society (the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence) cements Visvader’s esteemed scientific reputation. “It is wonderful to be recognised by scientific peers for my contributions to cancer research, which are aimed at delivering better outcomes for women with breast cancer,” she says.

Visvader says that she could never have pictured this honour as a PhD student and she hopes that her election will inspire early career scientists, especially women. “Election does come with a responsibility to help promote science and convey the importance of science to shaping a better society,” she says.

Read more about Professor Visvader’s election at science.org.au.