Griffith University
NEW TREATMENTS AGAINST THROAT CANCER CAUSED BY HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS

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SUMMARY

My PhD project is about developing a new treatment for a type of throat cancer called oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) derived from human papillomavirus 16 (HPV16). HPV16 is a high-risk type of virus that humans get from a non-protected sexual encounter. When the virus reaches throat cells it produces an infection that is hard to detect by our immune system. When the infection persists for long periods, it makes the cells’ genome instable. The instable genome is vulnerable to being hacked by HPV16, introducing the code for a protein (E7), which causes uncontrollable cell growth and cancer.  

My approach is to use a “finder” and “cutting” protein (CRISPR/Cas9), which finds E7 gene, and cuts it to make E7 useless. I will also boost the innate immune system to detect the virus using a STING agonist  to make the infected and cancer cells visible, so they can be exterminated.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Australia has the second highest incidence of cancer in the world with nearly 784 cases per 100000 individuals [1], and it is increasing due to factors such as ageing and population growth [2]. Interestingly, incidence of cancer in Queensland is higher than any other Australian state or territory (530 cases compared to 485 cases per 100,000 nationally in 2017) [3].

The incidence of head and neck cancers in Queensland (including lip and oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, OPSCC) was estimated to be approximately 926 cases per year in 2017. From all those cases 178 were attributed exclusively to oropharyngeal cancer in QLD equivalent to an incidence of 3.4 cases per 100000 persons [3].  

If my project is successful, I will have a specific therapy for OPSCCs that will have reduced side effects in comparison with the current therapies used. Although therapies such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can be effective at treating the cancer, they are associated with adverse side effects impacting patient quality of life [4]. The new therapy I am developing will give back the hope for Queenslanders, a therapy that will help them enjoy their lives fully and look into the future with confidence. 

The new tools I am using for the development of this new therapy will also help in the development of treatments for infectious diseases such as COVID-19. The development of an effective CRISPR/Cas9 system that can disrupt genes can help us target specific pathogenic viral genes, without harming the human cell’s genome.

Similarly, through developing this gene disruption therapy, we can disable specific pathogenic cancer mutations in any type of cancer, even in melanoma of the skin which is one of the biggest problems here in Queensland [2]. This procedure has the potential to improve the human immune system’s response against cancerous cells by removing their power to grow and multiply. 

The project I am leading is one of the few in the field of throat cancers derived from HPV and if we are successful, it will help not only OPSCC cancer but will echo throughout the health community calling for more research to improve the present therapies for other diseases.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

When I was a little, I used to be shy. I did not like that about myself, and I wanted to change. I remember looking up to the people around me being so open and brave and thinking, if they can do it, so can I. One day, I stopped hiding from the world and I started living. I mastered the courage to explore the world and found my calling in microbiology. Since then, working in science and getting to where I am now, has been a challenging task. Immersing myself in this world opened the door to a big realization of how much there is to know and discover. Let me tell you why my passion for science, my courage to leave my beautiful Latin American country to study abroad and my resilience helped me in my STEM career and in turn makes me a good role model for others.

I was always curious about how the world works and I cultured that passion to follow my dreams. I transformed myself from an insecure curious child into a confident grown-up researcher with many publications and awards along the way. My desire for learning took me from my bachelor’s degree in pharmacy to my master’s in microbiology and finally to my PhD where I am developing a new therapy for cancer. 

My passion for science gave me courage to study abroad. I have learned English, studied, and worked towards this goal for years. To be honest, I was afraid of leaving my whole life in Ecuador behind, but my heart kept telling me that I had to do this. After my masters I decided to study overseas. Since coming to Australia, I have grown as a person and as a professional. It has been a bumpy journey, but I wake up every day knowing that I am fulfilling my dream and helping humanity in the process.

The resilience I cultivated in my STEM journey helps me so much and in turn inspires others. A PhD is the pursuit of something that no one has done before. This can sometimes be overwhelming because not every day is a good day, but the hope of discovery lingers every day. Then suddenly you find a way to make things work out, maybe not even in the way you thought. Every day is a new day and just showing up makes you achieve greatness.

The way I see it, being a role model means that I can show other women and girls what you can be if you put your mind and soul into it, like so many of my role models showed me. There is no limit to what you can do, the only person that sets those limits is yourself. The world is waiting for you, be brave enough to take the first step.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

In my career, I have taken the opportunity to be a part of a lot of STEM promotion and engagement activities that include science communication, mentoring/mentee programs, and taking part in community women’s groups. 

I believe it is important to effectively communicate the research you are doing to share it with the world. In order to do that, I have presented various posters in national and international conferences winning third place at the High Degree Research Symposia (December 2021), Gold Coast/Australia. As well, I was a speaker in the 2nd Molecular and Applied Microbiology Congress (August 2018), Quito/Ecuador. I have participated in a 3-minute thesis competition winning first place in the category MMR/MPhil/Pre-Confirmation PhD at Griffith University 2020 and second place in the Australian Virology Society One Day Symposium 2021. 

I believe it is important to mentor others in their STEM journey. In 2021 I was fortunate to mentor a high school student from Brisbane for a day and get her inspired in a STEM career. I also love helping my colleagues every day in my laboratory. I think having the certainty that someone can help you out in finding an answer for a laboratory issue or even a real-life problem can be uplifting. 

Furthermore, I was nominated for Most Engaged Mentee at the Griffith Industry Mentoring Program which I joined in 2020. I meet two wonderful, accomplished professionals working in STEM that guided me and befriended me while the pandemic locked us down. I joined events such as Griffith Graduate Research International Women’s Day Breakfast (March 2022) where I had the opportunity to listen to three accomplished women in science. All of those opportunities have been very inspiring.

I have been part of two women’s groups here in Australia where I have had the opportunity to share my science in a non-scientific setting. First, I have been member of the Pony Club Book Club since March 2020 that discusses mostly Australian books and diverse topics such as science. The members appreciate how I can deliver complex topics like vaccination and how vaccines work. This is a real insight for them, and I also influence them as each member is either a mother or grandmother or are involved with young people and can further spread true information. I have also enriched my knowledge in Australian history and culture, and I have shared some Ecuadorian history and culture as well. 

As a member of Women in Technology, I have participated in networking events and met some excellent professionals working in diverse fields. I have also been part of a few seminars that they offer to unlock our potential as women in science. I have learnt that networking here in Australia is indispensable and I have encouraged other PhD friends to join.

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