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Meet Maria Kavallaris, a cancer-surviving professor who won an AM for research into the disease

Professor Maria Kavallaris AM is Head of the Tumour Biology&Targeting Program at Children's Cancer Institute&Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine Source: Supplied/Maria Kavallaris

Having overcome cancer in her youth, Professor Maria Kavallaris has dedicated her professional life to cancer research, recently being named a Member of the Order of Australia for her scientific service.

Born in Australia to Greek Cypriot parents, Professor Kavallaris was in early primary school when she and her family returned to Cyprus.

Unfortunately, when the island was occupied by Turkey, her family were caught up in the conflict and fled to Australia in the early 1970s.

Forty five years on, Professor Maria Kavallaris is Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at the Children's Cancer Institute and Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at UNSW Sydney.

Her research is internationally regarded and her lofty scientific achievements include identifying the mechanisms of action and resistance to anti-cancer drugs, discovering new protein interactions in cancer, and the development of less toxic cancer therapies using nanotechnology.

This year, Kavallaris received an Australia Day honour for significant service to medicine, and to medical research, in the field of childhood and adult cancers.

"I am both thrilled and humbled by this honour that recognizes my contribution to medical research and in particular cancer research. I also want to acknowledge my wonderful colleagues who have contributed to what I've been able to achieve," Professor Kavallaris told SBS Greek, noting that she never expected an award for her work.

Indeed, Ms Kavallaris was driven to work in the field of research in part from her own encounters with cancer: she was diagnosed and overcame cancer when she was 21 years old, but sadly lost her brother to pancreatic cancer.

"I was really young when I had cancer," she says. "Everyone's experience is different. Remember to take it a day at a time and people who look after loved ones with cancer, need to look after themselves and reach out to the support services available out there."

Professor Maria Kavallaris
Professor Maria Kavallaris
Cure Cancer Australia

Driven to make a difference

Ms. Kavallaris says the biggest issue with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy is that while it targets cancer cells, it also damages normal healthy cells.

"I'm passionate to make a difference and use my skills to develop less toxic therapies," Kavallaris says.

According to a report released by Cancer Council Australia, the number of Australians living with or beyond cancer is expected to increase by 72 per cent in the next 22 years.

Asked whether she believes that cancer will come to be considered a chronic illness rather than a fatal disease as treatments improve, Professor Kavallaris says that there are many different types of cancer - more than 200 - and this makes any certainty hard to come by.

"We can't put everything in one box," she says. "I do believe that at some point a number of cancers will be treated as chronic diseases. There have been some advances with immunotherapy but it's too soon to know how long that will be sustained for, because the treatments are very new. But there is great hope that we may be able to use the immune system to treat these diseases. From a personal perspective, I am very hopeful for the future."

Advice to the young

"Do what you are passionate about," Kavallaris says, when asked what advice she would give to the nation's children. "Believe in yourself, do what you want to do and remember to give back to the community."

Asked her if she believes her Cypriot background has shaped her personality, Kavallaris replies that it has shaped her point of view of the world.

"The importance of family and friends are very strong in the community and as we say, there is no problem that cannot be solved without a table full of food," she says.

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