Tales from... Dr Simon Keam

When I was a small boy, I was gifted a series of “Did You Know…” books by David Suzuki.  These explained unusual scientific truths about our world. It was from these books that I absorbed curious details of science which ultimately shaped my way of thinking and a desire to understand our natural world.

To be honest, I was not a spectacular student in high school, and was only narrowly accepted into a double Science and Engineering degree at The University of New South Wales in Sydney. At the impressionable age of 17, a fair dinkum country kid traded his sprawling outback home in the middle of nowhere (Moree, NSW) for the sprawling metropolis of Sydney.

As a researcher, I’ve been through a motley crew of fields. This included a spectacular early failure at a career in electrical engineering. It turns out mathematics is much harder than it looks – who knew. After a slight course correction to Science as a sole career path, I have fidgeted with yeast biology, dabbled in epigenetics and inheritance, and meddled with fundamental molecular biology. I moved to Melbourne and the Peter Mac in 2016, where my experience and focus has been redirected to a fundamental clinical problem – how can we help men with prostate cancer to decide on what treatment they get, and prevent relapse after treatment. Relapse for these men occurs despite several highly successful treatments like radiation therapy, androgen deprivation, and surgery. But, prostate cancer is prolific – with one in six Australian men getting prostate cancer before the age of 85, amounting to 20,000 patients per year a sizeable group of men without the ideal outlook.

Radiation therapy is a tried and trusted treatment for many types of cancer – in particular for prostate cancer. As a treatment strategy, it is remarkably effective as most patients can expect to be cured by it. I am fascinated by the differences in how patients respond to radiation– in particular to a subtype where radioactive seeds the size of rice grains are implanted into the prostate – called brachytherapy. Another major goal of my work is to survey gene expression and protein changes after patients receive radiation to identify things we can exploit with drugs. Other approaches focus on using this information to predict patients that will ultimately respond well or poorly to their radiation treatment. To achieve this, I work in close collaboration with oncologists and surgeons at Peter Mac, which affords me unparalleled access to exclusive samples and tangible insights from patients.

Most recently, I’ve focussed on refining radiation therapy as a treatment for prostate cancer, especially for those with nasty tumours who would ordinarily opt for surgery. As I have a strong immunology interest, I am exploring the concept of converting immunologically “cold” prostate tumors to more activated ones, and how this relates to the potential for immunotherapy approaches. This has broad implications for ongoing clinical research into overcoming the obstacles to the success of these treatments, as well as the possibility of avoiding unwanted side effects. Another captivating possibility is using radiation to fool tumour cells into advertising their presence to the immune system. These reliable molecular changes in tumour cells, and (critically) not in a normal cell, can be an irresistible bullseye to an immune system with a big gun and an itchy trigger finger.

As a child reading the “Did You Know…” illustrated books, I marvelled at how X-rays can pierce the skin to expose the structure beneath. Somewhat fittingly, the end goal of my research is a deeper understanding of how radiation therapy interacts with the human cancer and how this can be exploited in creative ways.

Figure Caption: Repurposing radiation therapy to induce novel targets for more effective combination therapies.


Simon obtained his PhD in 2012 at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (Sydney, NSW) investigating the role of non-coding RNAs and epigenetic mechanisms in the initiation of cancer. He elaborated on many of his doctoral findings during his early postdoctoral career at the University of Technology (Sydney, NSW). He subsequently moved to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Melbourne, VIC) in 2016 and commenced his current senior postdoctoral position. At Peter Mac, he works in both the Tumour Suppression and Human Immunology Translational Research Laboratories, under the supervision of Prof. Ygal Haupt, A/Prof. Paul Neeson, and radiation oncologist Prof. Scott Williams. Most recently, he has focussed on radiobiology and human immunology research with the goal of improving treatment and clinical prognostics for prostate cancer.


Twitter: @DrSimonKeam


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