About the lab

Our laboratory uses zebrafish to find genes that are crucial for the growth and survival of rapidly multiplying cells during the development of the zebrafish digestive system. We then test if these genes are also used by cancer cells to grow and survive.

We found a couple of genes that are essential for the growth of many cancers, including hard-to-treat ones like lung, liver, stomach, and bowel cancer. These types of cancer cause almost half of all cancer deaths worldwide, so we urgently need new treatments.

Our current focus is to discover drug-like compounds that can disable these genes in cancer cells without harming healthy ones. We have partnered with a European pharmaceutical company to speed up this process by screening hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds to find potential drugs. This approach has been successful in the past, and we hope it will lead to the development of effective cancer treatments.

Our mission

Our mission: To tap into developmental processes to identify novel cancer targets.

Our vision: To use our skills to contribute to the discovery of new drugs that are effective against hard-to-treat cancers in a caring and rewarding workplace.


Assoc Prof Joan Heath’s lab is one of the first in the world to demonstrate the value of zebrafish as a model for discovering genes relevant to the behaviour of solid tumours. Working with zebrafish, mice and human cell cultures, her lab has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the genetic mechanisms that regulate the rapid growth of tissues during early development.

Using an ENU-mutagenesis screen in zebrafish, students and post-docs in her lab identified ten genes that are indispensable for the rapid proliferation of cells during organogenesis. The team then went on to show that two of these are also essential for vigorously proliferating cancers, in particular those driven by the powerful oncogene, mutant KRAS. These painstaking genetic studies over almost 20 years are now being translated into a clinically relevant project designed to identify small molecules that selectively inhibit the function of these genes for the purpose of cancer treatment.


Image of tissue captured by a microscope
Above: ‘Fire and Iris’ by Stephen Mieruszynski was a finalist in the Art of Science 2019 competition

Lab research projects

Lab team

Our team collaborates with the Sutherland and Putoczki laboratories and the Business Development Office.

1 members
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