Dr Misty Jenkins is rewriting the future of brain cancer

Dr Misty Jenkins is rewriting the future of brain cancer

National News
HOME: Dr Jenkins on a trip back to Ballarat to visit family. Picture: Kate Healy

HOME: Dr Jenkins on a trip back to Ballarat to visit family. Picture: Kate Healy

Aa

Dr Misty Jenkins is working to transform the future for those diagnosed with brain cancer

Aa

Ballarat-bred scientist and medical researcher Dr Misty Jenkins is leading the fight against brain cancer.

Dr Jenkins heads an immunology laboratory at the world-renowned Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and, with her team, is working toward finding a cure for brain cancer.

Immunotherapy, or priming the immune system to kill cancer cells, is one of the most exciting prospects for the treatment of brain cancer, which kills more people under 40 than any other cancer.

There have been no new treatments for brain cancer in 30 years, and the survival rate has barely changed, with just 20 per cent of people diagnosed with the disease still alive five years later.

Dr Jenkins has her sights set firmly on a goal now – to cure brain cancer. However her path to running her own medical research laboratory was not always so clear.

She was the first person in her family to attend university, a massive step for the her as an indigenous student.

“I’m a Ballarat girl born and bred and went to Mt Clear College. My parents, like many of their generation, left school at  an early age and I’d never met anyone who had gone to university,” she said.

As a student, Dr Jenkins confesses she was the “nerdy kid” who, when her friends were playing basketball, joined St John Ambulance and went to first aid competitions because she was fascinated with how the body works.

“I loved the fields of medicine and science, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she said.

“I just knew I was interested in health, broadly, and fascinated by the way the body works. Every time I got a cold and my lymph nodes got swollen, I’d wonder what was going on in there?

“What was happening to these cells, how were they talking to each other, how were they killing the virus that was infecting the cells?”

She knew she wanted to pursue science, but that involved leaving Ballarat.

SCIENTIST: Dr Misty Jenkins in her laboratory at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

SCIENTIST: Dr Misty Jenkins in her laboratory at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

“It seemed like a scary move back then, but you couldn’t do a Bachelor of Science in Ballarat so I had to leave town and move to Melbourne to study.”

Over the course of the next 11 years, Dr Jenkins undertook undergraduate and postgraduate studies at University of Melbourne. She says a hallmark of those years was strong mentorship from some of the country’s most eminent minds.

As she gravitated toward studying studies of the immune system and how it worked, Dr Jenkins wrote to eminent immunologist Professor Peter Doherty, who at the time was the only living Nobel Laureate in the southern hemisphere.

“I approached Professor Doherty and said I was really keen to learn and he, along with Professor Steve Turner, took me under his wing and taught me for the next four years,” Dr Jenkins said.

That experience instilled in her the need for role models and mentors for young students to help shape them in to the world leaders of tomorrow.

“If I had not had a couple of good teachers early on, I don’t know what my pathway might have looked like.”

After her time in Melbourne she studied at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, becoming the first indigenous person to undertake post-doctoral studies at each of these British institutions.

“I had the whole Harry Potter experience: dining with the students, sitting where Hagrid sat and wearing black academic robes,” she laughed.

RETURN: Dr Misty Jenkins at Ballarat Tech School with Mt Clear College student Callum Parkinson.

RETURN: Dr Misty Jenkins at Ballarat Tech School with Mt Clear College student Callum Parkinson.

She returned to Australia and, after completion of a second post doctoral degree at Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, honed her interest in arming the immune system to fight cancer.

“I was always interested in T-cell immunity and understanding how white blood cells kill things in the body, and that’s when I started applying it in a cancer setting,” she said.

“We are working on understanding how T-cells kill cancer and manipulating or engineering T-cells with the weapons they need to kill brain tumours.

“We have how developed a number of new ‘living’ drugs to treat brain cancer and are in the process of pre-clinical testing, in the lab, to see if they work and can target and kill these cancer cells,” she said.

“The beauty of immunotherapy as an alternative to radiation or chemotherapy is that it is much more precise; you can target and kill the brain tumour cells but leave normal healthy brain cells alone.”

Recent breakthroughs in immunotherapy have been labelled “revolutionary” and shown incredible promise as possible new cancer treatments.

“We are now seeing global research going from bench to bedside so much faster that it has ever done before – giving new hope to people with cancer.”

But she is at pains to point out that there is no single cure for cancer, as cancer is not one disease but thousands of different diseases. and that development and testing of these new therapies is time consuming and expensive.

Last year Dr Jenkins’ work received a further boost with grant funding from Carrie Bickmore’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer campaign.

“We need to get indigenous kids involved in STEM. This is a time when there are some really complicated national conversations we need to have around sequencing the Aboriginal genome and DNA, and we need more indigenous people in STEM leadership who can contribute to these conversations,” she said. - Dr Misty Jenkins

In a two-year project, Dr Jenkins will collaborate with Dr Jordan Hansford from the Royal Children’s Hospital to investigate how the killer T-cells in the immune system could be modified to develop a new treatment for childhood brain cancer.

Dr Jenkins said Bickmore’s campaign to fund research in to the brain cancer that killed her first husband Greg Lange, 34, after a 10 year battle with the disease in 2010, was making a difference.

“It’s just incredible to see what can happen when you get strong advocacy,” she said.

Since 2015 Carrie’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer has raised $4.5 million for brain cancer research, and this year they’re hoping to raise a further $5 million with the federal government promising to match every dollar raised up to $5 million to double the impact. “It is time for some hope,” Dr Jenkins said.

Dr Jenkins is equally dedicated to her advocacy roles in the STEM, education and diversity sectors.

“I’m very passionate about all my advocacy roles – particularly getting gender equality squarely on the agenda and addressing the lack of women in leadership positions in STEM,” she said.

Dr Jenkins is a descendent of the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria through her mother and, for her, encouraging more students, particularly indigenous students, to study STEM subjects is a priority.

“We need to get indigenous kids involved in STEM. This is a time when there are some really complicated national conversations we need to have around sequencing the Aboriginal genome and DNA, and we need more indigenous people in STEM leadership who can contribute to these conversations,” she said.

“(Federal health minister) Greg Hunt wants to establish a reference genome for indigenous people, which is an important project for improving health in Aboriginal communities, but it’s a complicated issue. We still don’t have an indigenous geneticist in this country and that’s something I’m passionate about – indigenous people need to be at the forefront, leading in these areas.”

RETURN: Dr Misty Jenkins on a trip back to her old school at Mt Clear College in 2013.

RETURN: Dr Misty Jenkins on a trip back to her old school at Mt Clear College in 2013.

Dr Jenkins is also involved with the Aurora Education Foundation whose goal is to inspire the academic and career aspirations and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and an ambassador to the Poche Centre of Indigenous Health which runs programs to de-mystify higher education for indigenous students.

“When I was at Cambridge I found out that, at the time, there had never been an Aboriginal study at Oxford or Cambridge for a full-time degree and there had never been an Aboriginal Rhodes scholar.

“Now there have been 36 graduates,” she said proudly.

Dr Jenkins was recently in town visiting the new Ballarat Tech School to speak to local indigenous students and receive the CSIRO’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander STEM Professional Career Achievement Award.

“It is important to have role models because you can’t be what you can’t see. By being visible, you are showing students that STEM is a viable career and that you can discover things that have never been discovered before. I see a lack of indigenous voices at the table across the industry and I want to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people involved,” she said.

“It is essential to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural lens applied to western science, just like it is important to have others with diverse backgrounds and genders in senior positions in our workplaces. This breadth and depth of diversity is what is going to drive innovation.”

“A lot of kids just need time. The world is their oyster and education gives incredible opportunities. I have had so many options open up to me because of education. I’ve come from an underprivileged background on the outskirts of Ballarat and feel like I’m just starting on my journey. I’ve got some tough work ahead.” - Dr Misty Jenkins

Her message to all students when choosing their future pathway is to follow their interests.

“There’s so much pressure on students to pick the right degree. The course you take and what you do doesn’t define you – have lots of other interests and strengths and skills,” she said.

“It sounds really cheesy but students should follow their interests and passions to find a career they are happy with. By the time today’s students come through university in to the workforce it will be in jobs that haven’t even been created yet.

“A lot of kids just need time. The world is their oyster and education gives incredible opportunities. I have had so many options open up to me because of education. I’ve come from an underprivileged background on the outskirts of Ballarat and feel like I’m just starting on my journey. I’ve got some tough work ahead.”

Aa