New Zealander Ms Emma Nolan made a breakthrough in breast cancer research as part of her PhD studies at the Walter and Eliza Institute.

She and her colleagues discovered an existing medication could have promise in preventing breast cancer in women carrying a faulty BRCA1 gene. If confirmed in clinical studies, this would provide a non-surgical option to prevent breast cancer in women with elevated genetic risk.

A new approach to preventing breast cancer

As a PhD student Emma, working with her supervisors Professor Jane Visvader and Professor Geoff Lindeman, pinpointed the cells that give rise to breast cancer in samples of breast tissue donated by women with BRCA1 mutations.

In 2016 the research team then showed that a class of existing medications called RANK inhibitors could switch off cell growth in breast tissue from women with a faulty BRCA1 gene, and curtail breast cancer development in laboratory models. Their research was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Emma’s research achievements were recognised with the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research. In 2016 she was also the recipient of the National Breast Council Foundation’s inaugural Professor Joe Sambrook Student or Postdoctoral Fellow Award plus a $5,000 travel grant to further her scientific career. Emma is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute, UK, where she is investigating the treatment of metastatic cancers.

An interest in translational research

Emma grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin. During a summer internship, her supervisor recommended that she consider PhD studies at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

“As soon as I began reading more about the history of the Institute and the achievements made by its scientists past and present, I knew this was where I wanted to come.”
– Emma Nolan

“I was particularly drawn to the translational breast cancer research. An important focus of our lab is to test new ways to treat and prevent breast cancer, and to progress these discoveries into the clinic.”

Advice for New Zealand students

One of the great benefits for New Zealanders considering studying in Australia is that you are automatically considered permanent residents, Emma said.

“This means you don’t have to pay international fees for university, plus we can apply for Australian PhD scholarships including those from the University of Melbourne or Cancer Council Victoria, which has supported my PhD studies.

“The Institute allows you to do great science. The facilities available here for researchers are beyond anything I experienced during my undergraduate years.”
– Emma Nolan

“You are constantly surrounded by incredibly passionate, driven, highly intelligent people. Being in such an inspirational environment makes you excited to come to work,” Emma said.
“Melbourne is really the hub of cancer research in Australia, especially here in the Parkville precinct. There are many hospitals and research institutes all located near by that can collaborate together.

“If you are interested in cancer research this is the place to be!”

2017 Victorian Premier’s Award winner Emma Nolan speaking about her experiences as a cancer researcher. Video credit: Victorian Government

Sign up to our quarterly newsletter Illuminate

Find out about recent discoveries, community supporters and more.

Illuminate Winter 2024
View the current issue