Professor Deborah White is Deputy Cancer Theme Leader and Director of Cancer Research at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). In this role, Deb has established the Cancer Theme, bringing together outstanding leukaemia and stem cell researchers. Deb is responsible for the research output and conduct of approximately 100 cancer researchers, and is also directly responsible for her research group of over 20 researchers and postgraduate students.
Deb commenced her career in Haematology at IMVS (now SA Pathology), before completing a PhD at the University of Adelaide in 2007. As part of her PhD, Deb developed in vitro and in vivo assays to assess the efficacy of TKIs in CML cells (intrinsic sensitivity) collected at the time of patient diagnosis, and during the first month of TKI therapy. These were the first bioassay to optimize kinase inhibitor therapy in any cancer, and remain in use today in all CML clinical trials in Australia and elsewhere.
Deb’s PhD also focused on defining biomarkers to predict which patients would do less well than others. “I was keen to make a difference and wanted my research to be directly related to patients.”
Deb became a Fellow of the Faculty of Science of the Royal College of Pathologists within three years of completing her PhD and a Professor in the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine within five.
Deb’s current research projects focus on the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
Despite the remarkable clinical success of tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) to treat patients with CML, not all respond optimally. Deb and her team are working to address the key factors that dictate response to TKI therapy.“In CML we are on a ‘path to cure’,” says Deb. “Our ultimate aim is treating patients in such a way that they will remain disease-free once their therapy’s finished.”
Deb has a growing national and international reputation in ALL. She is working to ensure that: there is an understanding of the disease drivers in high-risk ALL; each patient receives the right therapy for their disease; relapses are averted; and those who do relapse can be successfully treated.
“My overarching goal and that of my group is to ensure we use the best therapy, at the best time, to ensure the best result for each leukaemia patient,” she says. “The drugs and tools we have available mean that we can indeed ‘personalise’ approaches for each patient.”
Deb has authored over 65 papers, presented more than 150 national and international peer-reviewed talks, and in 2014 received the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) SA Leading Light Award.