Member Spotlight: Professor Rob Ramsay

Professor Rob Ramsay is Head of the Differentiation and Transcription Laboratory at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne. He trained in genetics and biochemistry and has three decades of research experience in cancer biology. His laboratory specialises in transcriptional control, stem cell biology, mouse models of colon and breast cancer, radiation biology and DNA repair. Rob is the Group Leader of the gastrointestinal program at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Rob was recognised by the AGITG as the winner of the New Concepts Symposium Award at the AGITG Annual Scientific Meeting in September 2015. A long-time AGITG member, he is a current member of the AGITG Scientific Advisory Committee and Lower GI Working Party and has led the ASM Translational Research Committee since 2018. He is also an AGITG Board Member.

We sat down with Rob as he shared with us career achievements, how he became involved in the AGITG and his favourite pastimes!

What inspired you to begin researching cancer biology?

From my earliest days I loved exploring nature – from coastal shores to swamps and marshes. I revelled in the changing seasons and populations of plants, insects, birds, and reptiles. This ultimately led to formally studying biological sciences. Undergrad practical classes moved to small projects and then I was hooked. Apparently, my friends recognized before I did that, I was destined to become a researcher. In essence cancer is a manifestation of normal biology gone awry so delving into differences between normal and cancer cells has become my enduring vocation; it’s never work.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I have been very fortunate to have a rich pedigree of research training in medical research institutes like QIMR (Brisbane), Memorial Sloan Kettering (New York), Ludwig (Melbourne) and Peter Mac (Melbourne). These environments have allowed progression from investigating cancer cell lines to animal models of cancer to ultimately testing novel therapies for patients with cancer. I do not like to talk of pride, but I am very happy to say that discoveries I made early in my career have now found their way into testing in the clinic. To have led and/or been deeply engaged in eight completed clinical trials; something I could have only dreamt about even when I was mid-career.

Why did you become involved in the AGITG?

When one of the founding members of AGITG Prof John Zalcberg made me aware of and invited me into AGITG. I wish I knew about it earlier because it is the perfect gathering point for clinicians and laboratory researchers with an urgency to improve the outcome of patients with GI cancers. Over time I have become more and more embedded in the organisation, and this has contributed to my personal growth as a cancer researcher. It is empowering being with smart people with a single vision.

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

I am a huge fan of immunotherapy particularly knowing that we can now confidently use the term ‘cured’ for a select group of patients. It is not a universal option, but it makes a very BIG statement to me. I hold the view that the immune status of a patient with cancer dictates whether they will benefit most or not from all the therapeutics we currently employ. In simple terms – surgery, chemo- and radiotherapy work in concert with the patient’s immune system. In a similar way a patient with a bacterial infection will respond best to antibiotics if they have a robust immune system; antibiotics work in partnership with the patient’s immune system. In my view cancer therapies do too and we need exploit any opportunity to enhance immune competency in partnership with other therapies.

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

I was asked this once before in another context and my answer is the same – Thomas Keneally, one of our most treasured novelists. Other dinner table guests I would love to squeeze in are Michelle and Barack Obama. I think they would bring out the best in each other and I would just listen and sip on an appropriately old and revered shiraz.

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

Honestly, I cannot bear this thought as I even find it too boring to eat leftovers.

What are your top three hobbies?

My first love is not really a hobby as it has been part of my life for 40 years and that is karate. Second would come pottery, ceramics, and painting and a third is building and fixing things from furniture to mechanical things like engines.

Lastly, we’re delighted that you are leading the 2023 Grampians trek – what was your motivation and what are you hoping to achieve?

I am a little daunted by this commitment as well as excited. AGITG has given a great deal to the community of patients with GI cancer and their families in Australasia. Clinical trials define the way forward – testing, accepting and/or rejecting better ways to treat and care for patients. I am driven by evidence and discovery of what we call “real-world” effective therapies. Many would not know this about AGITG which is understandable, while I do. AGITG is like a village of people who toil for improving the care of others who really deserve the best, my kind of people. How could I say no!

Find out more about the 2023 Grampians trek with Prof Rob Ramsay