Written By

Janine Lucas


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

27 October 2022

Related Study Areas

'The end goal is to improve patients’ lives'

A James Cook University research team is working on new ways to detect and treat liver cancer.

Led by Associate Professor Lionel Hebbard, the research group is studying the genes regulating liver cancer progression and metabolism, as well as the genes regulating muscle growth and repair.

A current focus of Lionel’s work is to find better ways to diagnose the most common type of primary liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), in rural, regional, and remote patients.

“The end goal is to improve patients’ lives,” he says. “Liver cancer is a very poor prognosis cancer. After five years, only about 18 per cent of the patients survive. For rural patients, this decreases even further. Concerningly, for Indigenous patients in these areas, just 10 per cent survive.

“This is because they’re internal cancers and they’re detected late. In Northern Australia, it's more difficult because these cancers are largely detected by imaging and people don't have access to those procedures in rural and remote areas.

A/Prof Lionel Hebbard and Honours student Eun Jin Sun.

“We are examining the underlying basis of disease, how certain genes and their respective proteins are altered in certain cells, and how these attribute to the disease. By understanding that, you can then design new therapeutics or new ways of treating the cells.

“There are emerging new ways of inhibiting genes or proteins without affecting the rest of the patient. We saw this with COVID; they were able to manufacture a special vaccine, and now we can use similar machinery for treating human diseases. A key approach is to get the patient’s immune system to recognise the tumour as foreign.”

Lionel, who lectures in metabolic biochemistry, founded the Cancer and Metabolism research group at the Westmead Institute of Medical Research in Sydney in 2008, and moved to JCU’s College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences in 2015. Brisbane raised, he studied science and economics at Griffith University and UQ and completed his PhD in Germany before taking on postdoctoral positions in Switzerland and the United States.

JCU Medicine Honours students Eun Jin Sun, Jonathon Carll, Anirudh Krishnan, Daniel Yuan, and Harman Sharma after presenting their exit seminars.

Honours student follows research passion

JCU medical student Eun Jin Sun has just completed her Honours thesis, ‘Defining new targets in hepatocellular carcinoma’, as part of the team working under Lionel's supervision in the state-of-the-art wet lab at JCU’s The Science Place.

EJ was educated in the US and worked as a cancer researcher for two years in her country of birth, South Korea, after graduating from Case Western Reserve University. Drawn to the JCU medicine program because of its unique focus on rural and Indigenous health, she moved to Australia in 2017 to study in Townsville.

She found her way back to the lab in the first year of her degree, when she went looking for cancer research opportunities in her adopted home. She  discovered that Lionel, her metabolic biochemistry lecturer, was leading a research effort investigating liver cancer.

“I reached out after the first couple of lectures and asked if I could come in to do some lab work,” EJ says. Five years on and nearing graduation, EJ has authored a review paper on treatments for cancer, and her research will contribute to a new therapeutic way to treat liver cancer.

Studying Honours concurrently with years five and six of the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree is just one of the Honours pathways available to JCU students wishing to gain hands-on research experience during their medical degree. Students can also pursue Honours over year 6 and their intern year or any time up to postgraduate year 5.

Alternatively, medical students can take a year out of studies to pursue a full-time 12-month Honours research project by completing a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours) after year 3.

The Science Place, JCU.

Tailoring research pathways beyond medical school

For EJ, culturing cells in the lab while listening to music has been a form of stress relief during her medical studies. Her goal after graduating is to do a PhD in lab-based research in cancer.

Now completing her final placement in Tully, EJ will start her internship next year at Townsville University Hospital (TUH), where she’s eager to continue her research. She says Townsville, with its tertiary teaching hospital, is a place where students and junior doctors can tailor their own research pathways.

“The hospital is really quite large, and a lot of the physicians are interested in research. They're easy to approach, too,” EJ says. “I believe training up here is a great opportunity to do what you want to do, because everyone’s super supportive. Because there are not that many people who are doing research in the field currently, the hospital staff are willing to help you out every step of the way.”

Lionel says research is intrinsic to improvements in clinical practice, and the JCU lab is always looking for students.

“Studies show that if you have clinicians who are interested in research, the outcomes for their patients are better.”

Associate Professor Lionel  Hebbard

“It’s in the interest of the area health service and the public themselves to have physicians who are interested in research because then they'll get better health outcomes for their society and the society will be more productive. So it's a win win.”

The JCU researchers in the discipline of molecular and cell biology work closely with TUH clinicians, sourcing human samples of hepatic tumours and using them to make primary cultures for modelling cell culture experiments. They also work with cell lines generated from mice and from human patients.

“Here in this lab, we can sort cells on the basis of certain markers, we can take blood from patients and sort them into different immune cell types,” Lionel says. “We also have really advanced microscopy, and we do a lot of genetic experiments, changing the genes and cells.”

Lionel works alongside his wife, Dr Miriam Wankell, who has a PhD in cellular and molecular biology from the ETH-Switzerland, and two PhD students: Lauren Taylor, who is working on molecules that mediate muscle growth, and Rhys Gillman, who is investigating novel genetic mechanism in liver cancer.

Rhys and the team are also supported by Associate Professors Ulf Schmitz and Matt Field, experts in the field of bioinformatics, which uses computational programming and knowledge of biology to better genetic pathways promoting liver cancer.

James Cook University is a leader in tropical health and medicine research. Find out how JCU Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery graduate Dr Visai Muruganandah helped make a difference during his Honours studies.

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