Member Spotlight: Professor Vicki Whitehall

Professor Vicki Whitehall has researched the molecular basis of colorectal cancer for the past 20 years. She has contributed key conceptual advances to understanding the evolution of colorectal polyp subtypes to clinically relevant groups of colorectal cancers. Her research findings together with active clinical collaborations have contributed to altered clinical guidelines for the management of colorectal polyps and cancers.

Vicki is the Chair of the new AGITG/GI Cancer Institute Translational Research Committee, and Deputy Chair of the 2022 AGITG Annual Scientific Meeting Translational Research Committee.

We sat down with Vicki as she shared with us career achievements, how she became involved in the AGITG/GI Cancer Institute and her favourite cuisine!

What inspired you to become a cancer researcher?

I always loved science, so from a young age wanted to do something in this field. I lost my grandfather to pancreatic cancer when I was 12, which inspired me to focus on cancer research. I feel very fortunate to spend my time every day working to find new ways treat cancer.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my research team. We are a dedicated group of scientists, clinician researchers and collaborators throughout Australia and internationally. Over the past two decades we have made many discoveries that are now impacting clinical practice and influencing patient management. It is difficult to fund a team of researchers with highly competitive grant funding that provides limited job security. Despite these challenges, my vibrant research team are highly motivated to design innovative translational research projects, working together to produce the best outcomes in the laboratory and ultimately for patient care. Most recently we have discovered that adding aspirin to therapeutic regimens may provide increased therapeutic benefit. Working with my oncology collaborator Dr Matthew Burge, we generated compelling preclinical data and are now working with AGITG/GI Cancer Institute  to develop this concept as a clinical trial. Successfully completing a clinical trial that demonstrates improved outcomes for patient would be a major highlight of my career.

Why did you become involved in the AGITG/GI Cancer Institute?

I was invited to present at an annual meeting some years ago and was so impressed not only by the quality of the conference and exciting work being presented, but also by the amazing collegiality of the AGITG/GI Cancer Institute community. The organisation is comprised leading clinicians and researchers involved in gastrointestinal cancer research, who all share the goal of improving outcomes for patients. I was welcomed by the community and encouraged to contribute. Prof Rob Ramsay, who is now serves on the AGITG/GI Cancer Institute Board of Directors, has been an important mentor for me. He invited me to join the translational research planning committee for the annual meeting. It has been a great opportunity for me to meet other committee members and learn more about the organisation’s work. We are an active community group with members represented on many committees. It has been a pleasure to hear their input and share in their excitement for research.

Why did you choose to become part of the Translational Research Committee?

I am most excited about the potential to influence research in gastrointestinal cancer biology and treatment strategies. As a committee we will review current sample collections available from clinical trials that have already been conducted. We will also provide suggestions to ensure that translational research is considered at the onset of a new clinical trial, with samples collected and stored in a manner that maximises future experimental potential. We hope this will broaden access to the valuable samples collected for clinical trials and encourage additional collaborative research to understand the determinants of clinical outcomes.

Are there particular areas of GI cancer research that you believe hold most promise for the future?

A major goal of my laboratory is to develop and implement personalised medicine strategies. This means that we will aim to understand the drivers of each patient’s cancer to predict which therapy is the best fit for their individual cancer. We are currently collecting patient cancer samples at the time of surgery and are able to grow these samples in the laboratory. We use a new method to create three dimensional ‘mini-cancers’ called organoids, that mimic the behaviour of the original cancer. We can apply drugs to these organoids and observe which are best able to kill the cancer cells. Ultimately I hope this will become standard of care to inform therapeutic decisions made by treating oncologists.

If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?

I would like to name an eminent scientist, but the truth is I would most like to have dinner with my family.

If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Spaghetti bolognaise!

What are your top three hobbies?

I love to garden, paint and cook.