Tales from... Dr Clare Slaney

My mum called it “destiny”

Dr Clare Slaney

I was born and raised in China, and nearly all of my female family members had careers in the medical field. My grandmother was a pharmacist, my mother was a cardiologist, and three of my uncles all married medical doctors working at my mother’s hospital. During my time at school, I never seriously thought about what career I would have in the future, but maybe the medical environment at home influenced my decisions. Eventually, I became a scientist in the field of biomedical research. My mum called it “destiny”.

After school education, my parents thought going overseas would provide me with better education and career opportunities than in China at the time, and thus sent me to study in New Zealand. I became interested in immunology during my studies at the University of Auckland, and subsequently did my PhD in immunology at the Malaghan Institute in Wellington. Although I enjoyed basic research, I always wished that I could carry out research that would benefit people more directly. While I was writing up my PhD thesis, I received a call from my mum telling me that a close family friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was shocked, and hoped that she could be treated and recover from her illness. Unfortunately, in 2009 there were limited treatment options for metastatic breast cancer patients. She passed away soon after, and I heard how the disease had impacted her family, both financially and emotionally. From then on, I decided to concentrate my research efforts onto cancer. This is why after completing my PhD, I started my postdoc at the Peter Mac.

Now I have been working in the field of cancer immunotherapies for more than ten years. The past few years has been the golden era for the development of cancer immunotherapies. When I first started in 2010, many people did not believe immunotherapies would have a place in cancer treatment. However, a number of immunotherapies, including immune checkpoint blockade treatments, oncolytic virus, and chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, have since been approved to treat cancer patients and have revolutionised the field. We have heard many exciting stories regarding cancer patients being “cured” by immunotherapies, including former US president Jimmy Carter, who became cancer-free after receiving an immunotherapy for his melanoma that had already spread to his liver and brain. In 2016, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) named immunotherapy the “clinical advance of the year”, and in 2018, Drs James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded the Nobel Prize for their development of checkpoint immunotherapies.

My research focuses on using genetically modified T lymphocytes to fight against cancer. These modified T cells contain an additional receptor called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which recognises cancer cells. In this approach, T cells from a patients’ blood are isolated, and implanted a CAR to target cancer cells. After about ten days of growing the cells in the lab, the new CAR T cells are infused back into the cancer patient. This method was initially developed in the 1990s by an Israeli biologist, Zelig Eshhar, and has now been approved in both the US and Australia to treat certain blood cancers. Although its effectiveness for treating blood cancers is great, it scarcely works in solid cancers.

In our laboratory, we have made great progress using CAR T cells for treating solid cancers. In 2019, we built a protein-based drug that sticks to CAR T cells and links CAR T cells to other immune cell populations inside the body. The linkage reconnects the CAR T cells to the body’s immune system and reinvigorates their anti-tumour effect against solid tumours. In our experiments, this therapy has had dramatic effects in breast cancer, sarcoma, and liver carcinoma models, with the majority of the solid tumours being eradicated. Recently, we formed a spinout company, Currus Biologics, with a $10M investment from Brandon Capital Partner’s Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (MRCF) to further develop these protein reagents.

Working with Currus Biologics is exciting and my learning curve is steep. I have been very lucky in having excellent support from my mentors, team members and funding bodies. In particular, I greatly appreciate the mentorship and guidance from my supervisor A/Prof Michael Kershaw. Mike carried out the first human CAR T clinical trial in the world during his NIH postdoc in the US, and subsequently brought the CAR T cell technology back to Australia. He subsequently initiated the Lewis Y CAR T cell trials at the Peter Mac. Mike is a role model to me. In addition to his insight, deep knowledge and experience, I admire his passion for science and desire to make a difference for cancer patients.

Over the past ten years I have been fortunate to have received continuous funding from National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). Their support has been invaluable, and has enabled me to achieve my research goals. Recently, NBCF formed the Circle of 10 initiative that brings together influential, like-minded women who are passionate in supporting breast cancer research. I was lucky to be supported by the Circle of 10, and we have worked together for the past three years. Their enthusiasm and positive attitude are influential, and inspire us to dedicate ourselves towards finding a cure for cancer.

Figure Legend: The Image describes that two CAR T cells (orange) are killing a cancer cell (blue). The dark blebbing on the cancer cell demonstrates that the cancer cell is going through cell death. This image was taken by Aaron Harrison, Alysha Dew and Bianca von Scheidt.

Clare is a Senior Research Fellow in the Kershaw Lab. Her current research interests are in understanding the interaction between the immune system and cancer, and in the use of immunotherapies to treat cancer. These interests include the use of genetically modified T cells (CAR T cells) to treat solid cancers. Clare has published over 40 papers in high-impact journals including first and last authorships in Nature Medicine, PNAS, Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer Research and Cancer Discovery. She has obtained 3 fellowships and 6 CIA project grants since 2012. In March 2021, Clare was also appointed as the Head of R&D in Currus Biologics, a Peter Mac spin-out company, based on her research findings carried out in the Kershaw Lab.

Dr Clare Slaney can be contacted by:

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/clareslaney/

Twitter: @slaney_clare

Researchgate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Clare-Slaney

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