We sat down with Dr Ken Dutton-Regester, NHMRC Early Career Fellow in the Oncogenomics Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer, to ask him some questions about his research and recent Young Tall Poppy award.
What is your area of research?
My research aims to identify the genetic events driving the growth of melanoma and to use this information to inform or improve treatment strategies for patients with late-stage, or metastatic, disease.
Can you tell us about a project you’re working on at the moment?
We’ve recently discovered an interesting correlation
that might explain why metastatic melanoma patients whose tumours have mutations in a gene called PTEN are dif cult to treat. As this mutation occurs in about 15 to 20 per cent of patients, we are excited about this as we have also shown that a new class of drugs, called AKT inhibitors, is effective in slowing the growth of these cancers.
How did you end up in science?
During high school, I enrolled in a class called ‘Diseases and Drugs’ and was fascinated by how simple changes in a person’s genetic code could have profound outcomes for human health. Not surprisingly, this scienti c curiosity fuelled my research career in exploring the interconnection of genetics and cancer.
You spent time overseas doing research at Boston MIT. What did you get out of your experience there?
Having the opportunity to do research in Boston at one of the world’s leading cancer institutes was a formative experience for me, both personally and scienti cally. Not only did I expand my collaborative network and learn new techniques, it also made me appreciate the high quality of research being performed here at QIMR Berghofer and in Australia.
What made you decide to come back to Australia to continue your scientific career?
In 2014, I was fortunate to receive a NHMRC Early Career Fellowship that funded my salary for two years overseas and as such, I always considered myself ‘on- loan’. However, the real story is that my wife and I were ready to start a family and we wanted to do that back home in Australia.
What do you like about working at QIMR Berghofer?
There’s a vibrant community feel at QIMR Berghofer, and a collegiality between all employees that stretches from the researchers, to the support staff, to the leadership team. Beyond that, I think there are a wealth of opportunities to develop scienti cally and professionally, and I will always be grateful for the time I have spent here (which is almost 10 years now).
You recently received a Queensland Young Tall Poppy Science award. Was that a career highlight?
It meant a lot to me as I had been working towards this award for more than ve years. I’m really passionate about science communication and am always talking to the community about the bene ts and importance of medical research. It was great to be recognised by the Of ce of the Chief Scientist of Queensland for my research and science communication efforts.
What do you hope to have achieved by the time you retire?
As funny as this sounds, I’d be ecstatic if I had to retire early because we had succeeded in making late-stage melanoma a chronic disease with high survival rates. Notably, we’ve gone from a three-year survival rate of 20 per cent up to 60 per cent in the last ve years alone…. maybe I’ll need to think about retirement plans sooner rather than later.
When you have a couple of hours free, how do you pass the time?
Trying to juggle an eight-month-old son with all the demands of becoming an independent researcher means that ‘a couple of free hours’ feels like a luxury I don’t have at this stage of my life. Despite that, I try my best to keep active by running and cycling (triathlon is on hold) and spending as much time with my favourite people, Kate and Ty (my wife and son).