The research of Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin and Dr Shom Goel have received massive boosts with the announcement of two $8 million fellowships.

Dr Eckersley-Maslin is using insights from how embryos grow to better understand how cancers are caused and develop. Dr Goel has an ambitious research plan to study therapy-induced senescence.

They are two of the three new Snow Fellows awarded by the Snow Medical Research Foundation today. The Fellowships, now in their second year, award $8 million each to emerging biomedical research leaders, thanks to the generous support of Terry and Ginette Snow and family.

Both Dr Eckersley-Maslin and Dr Goel work at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Melbourne.

Dr Eckersley-Maslin has recently relocated back to Australia after over a decade in the US and UK, and is applying her research into how cell identity and function are established in early development to better understand how cancers progress.

"I had been asking what gives the earliest cells of the embryo the ability to generate all the cell types found in adults – but there is a parallel question no one was looking at about how this normally tightly controlled process is hijacked by cancers," she said.

Dr Eckersley-Maslin said in the next eight years she would be leading an internationally renowned team, using lessons from the embryo to discover new targets in cancer and develop therapeutic concepts that will go on to be developed into clinical trials.

"The Snow Fellowship will enable me to pursue long-term blue-sky questions not possible to answer through traditional funding schemes. These big questions may be high risk but they're also high reward," she said.

Snow Medical's support will also allow Dr Eckersley-Maslin to pursue another issue she's a strong advocate for: gender equity in research.

"I am passionate about demonstrating that it is possible to have both a family and a successful career – and would like to see a generational change in attitudes, such that young women no longer feel they have to make a choice and step back from an academic career to raise a family," the mother-of-two said.

Last year Dr Eckersley-Maslin was also awarded one of two annual $55,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

She is also a Galli Senior Research Fellow, funded by the Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Medical Research Trust which supports collaborative research programs across the Parkville medical precinct in the areas of cancer and developmental disorders. 

Dr Goel is a physician scientist and his work as a breast cancer specialist has given him insight into where treatments are currently failing patients.

"Unfortunately, some cancer cells don't die in response to common treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Rather they enter a state known as senescence and these senescent cells can fuel a cancer's growth over time, ultimately threatening a patient's life," Dr Goel says.

"This very generous Fellowship will give me the time and resources to explore some of the most critical open questions about senescence in cancer. What makes one senescent cancer cell different from another? Do senescent cells explain why some cancers relapse years after we thought they were cured?"

To address these questions, Dr Goel and his team will build a suite of cutting-edge laboratory models and screening tools that take time to create, and which conventional funding mechanisms are not designed to support.

"The level of funding provided by the Snow Fellowship is unprecedented for Australian scientists. It will give me the time and security needed to ask big questions, ultimately reaping greater rewards," Dr Goel said.

"The Fellowship will also attract a diverse, world-class team to my lab and within eight years, I am confident that we will have discovered some of the first 'senotherapies' – medicines that specifically target senescent cells. We will also be very well positioned to drive the clinical development of those therapies here in Australia."

Having returned home to Australia in 2019 after spending ten years at Harvard University, Dr Goel is especially grateful that the Snow Fellowship has secured his future in Australia.

"Without funding schemes such as the Snow Fellowship, Australia is in constant danger of losing our best and brightest minds to other centres around the world. This philanthropic investment in biomedical research represents great vision and commitment," Dr Goel said.

Executive Director Cancer Research Professor Ricky Johnstone said Dr Eckersley-Maslin and Dr Goel both have the opportunity to make innovative discoveries.

"These Fellowships are some of the most lucrative and prestigious in the world and will allow Melanie and Shom to do the really impactful science I think Snow Medical is looking for."

"At Snow Medical, we want to back the boldest and best of the next generation of researchers. We set out to find exceptional visionary leaders, and our 2021 Snow Fellows are truly outstanding," Snow Medical Chair Tom Snow said.