EXCELLENCE is very much a constant for professor Angel Lopez.
“People are always asking me ‘where’s the cure for cancer?’ The good news is that, as researchers, we are curing more cancers. That’s what drives us,” he says.
It’s some tag to live up to.
A staple of the Adelaide medical scene since 1986, the 2010 South Australian of the year (science) directs his operations from a corner CBD office with the east facing wall given over to a collection of antique maps.
One drawing, post Captain Cook, shows a complete circuit of Australia save for a bottom section devoid of land markings or boundaries.
“You can see South Australia is not here,” he said. “It was the last part of Australia to be charted.”
It’s a nice story and euphemism of sorts for the five-year-old Centre for Cancer Biology (CCB) tucked away behind the Royal Adelaide Hospital at the out of vogue end of North Terrace.
The prof’s stylish, but small, abode is indicative of a CCB fit to burst with ideas and inventions corridors tunnelling in all directions, every inch occupied by person or product.
It’s shouting loudly but only with an $80 million move to the new health precinct in late 2017, will it be more readily seen.
Two years ago the CCB co-director knew his expansion was a must.
“The health system was under stress and cancer research needed support. That’s where we talked to UniSA,” he said. “The idea originated here, the CCB is part of a SA Pathology and UniSA partnership now. It was a marriage made in heaven.
“We are at full capacity with about 180 people. That was a major driver, grants are highly competitive, diagnostics want to continue to work with us and we have nowhere to go. We applied to federal government for funding for a building and UniSA matched the $40M that Gillard government contributed.”
An upgrade to 400 staff by 2018 is the ideal he said.
“It’s very difficult to bring people in now because there’s no space. UniSA are giving us professorial positions, so if we find somebody fantastic it makes sense to come and work with us.
“Normally when someone wants to work for you, we apply for a fellowship and it becomes successful in a year’s time, then you can come. Now we can say, the money’s in the bank, come now. I’m very excited. I get phone calls from people interstate asking what’s happening.”
The rise of the CCB, post upgrade, will depend upon continued innovation and application.
Genomics (genetic sequencing) is a stand out success.
“We put an application for a genomics facility to the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ARCF) in 2009. We didn’t have space but because we got $5 million from the ACRF, the state government, MedVet Science and the South Australian Cancer Council chipped in and suddenly we found the space.”
Such leverage begets fast movement.
“Everything is based on excellence and once it’s seen to be there, there is no shortage of groups that want to come and help out and make it a success story. Now we have a genomics facility that is unique in SA.”
Every worthwhile discovery though needs a broader platform and product commercialisation. Outstanding basic science and applicable results will attract commercial interest said prof Lopez.
“We have a luxurious situation now where almost every lab in the CCB has a patent on an invention which itself is being licensed to a biotech company. Every lab is commercialising findings with some several exciting patentable discoveries in the pipeline.”
The genomics facility through profs Sue Branford and Hamish Scott joined with global life sciences company Sequenom to develop a method for the sensitive detection of patients with drug resistant cancer.
This led to collaboration with Ariad Pharmaceuticals that had a drug that overcame drug resistant cancer in preclinical studies. The resulting collaboration has led to more sensitive detection of drug resistant cancers that apply to many more cancers and a provisional patent is under way.
“CSL Ltd (Melbourne) have been supporting my lab for 14 years and helped me develop a drug from the bench that is now in clinical trials for patients with acute myeloid leukaemia. CSL has licensed the drug to Jenssen pharmaceuticals and testing is now worldwide. They pay for very expensive clinical trials.”
The right people can sometimes bring a left field bonus he said with Dr Quenten Schwartz’s work on brain tumours at the CCB an almost quirky success.
“Because we were working on another area of how cells talk to each other we found the basis for another pathway, of schizophrenia. Now we think we have a new test to detect schizophrenia early.”
Ditto Dr Michael Samuel, a CCB skin cancer expert who indirectly found a way to accelerate wound healing twice as fast.
“Again we didn’t sit down to plan how to accelerate wound healing but because of a very good collaboration with a neighbouring lab developing new therapeutics, now we have the patent on a compound that halves the length of time it takes for a wound to heal. We have very good companies interested in that right now.”
Which makes for broad smiles more often than not.
“It’s Christmas almost every day. You need to create conditions where people see there is value in commercialising stuff and develop an awareness of where this will lead to, so it comes back to having the right people.
“You want the person that is excellent, smart and can think outside the square and has runs on the board and can interact, like a soccer or footy team, they bring grants. People that create jobs, that’s what we have.”
It’s been some journey from Rosario in Argentina for the soccer fan who arrived here after his PhD supervisor in London persuaded him to head to the world renowned Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Four years later, he took on the task of starting a new lab from scratch in the new division of immunology in Adelaide.
Much has changed since but the love of sport remains.
A consummate team player, at 64 years-old he plays soccer still, often twice weekly, Saturdays with his two sons in a St Peters Old Collegians (SPOC) side and Sundays with the Three Lions where he turns out in midfield alongside Port Adelaide FC fitness coach Darren Burgess.
Such integration is key in science.
“For a start, discoveries are more relevant, they are translated into practice faster. To have them together is the best insurance for health care you can have.”
Communication too is critical where the unconventional can invariably be king.
“When I came to Melbourne there was a culture of having morning tea every day and afternoon tea and everybody from director to most basic worker would be there. Sometimes you talk about football or footy but more often than not you would talk about science and if you had a problem or idea you knew you would find him or her there,” he said.
It’s this desire to foster and ferment new ideas that the new HQ will seek to replicate.
“We want an area for getting together for morning coffee and afternoon tea. That’s where the ideas come from, people bumping into each other. The days when science was in silos and people were doing things individually have long gone.”
“The key is the quality of people. We need a culture of research excellence, good people will get new grants and bring more money to it.”
His own job is complex, with research to get grants to continue his research a never ending circle though a $6.7 million program grant last year will elevate his kudos for some time yet. Respect in the medical community is based on your work as a researcher he said.
Then there’s the leadership and talent spotting, interstate or overseas, and the responsibility not to let them slip by.
“I start in the shower really, thinking ‘what is happening today?’ I try and visit almost every lab to try and find out what is going on. It’s very exciting work at a very exciting time in cancer research.”
(published Advertiser 19th June 2017)