Talk of serial killers and targeted hits is usually the domain of police operations or the latest must-see TV box set.
But for Melbourne-based immunologist Dr Misty Jenkins these terms are part of the world of cytotoxic lymphocyte biology - the exciting area of research on white blood cells and cancer treatments which she says could make gruelling chemotherapy drugs a thing of the past.
“These are the white blood cells of our immune system that zoom around our bodies to protect us from wayward invaders like viruses and also from cancer,” Jenkins tells SBS Science.
“For a good 15 years I’ve been looking at understanding how they recognise their targets, how they mount their army, how they kill their enemy, and then how they then detach from their target to go on to become serial killers.
“In more recent work we’ve been taking advantage of these killer cells and engineering them to use them to target against cancer cells. So I envisage a day where we won’t use toxic chemotherapy drugs any more, we’ll be able to target a person’s own immune system to fight their own cancer.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a cancer immunologist,” says Jenkins, who currently works at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
A self-confessed “nerdy child” who grew up on the outskirts of Ballarat in country Victoria, Jenkins’ interest in science started at a young age. While her friends were off playing basketball, she was competing in first aid competitions with St John Ambulance.
“I think that’s a question that still drives me today,” she says. “I was just fascinated from a very early age by infectious disease and the immune system.”
However, Jenkins, who is a descendent of the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria through her mother, says a career in science was neither expected nor encouraged.
She was the first member of her family to go to university, and the first indigenous Australian to attend the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities as a postdoctoral researcher.
There's no single cancer cure
These days it’s a desire to make a difference to people’s lives that drives her. Having seen her own father battle (and survive) lung cancer, Jenkins believes scientists must help raise the scientific literacy of the public so that they understand what cancer is, and what it means.
Part of that is disabusing people of the notion that there might one day be “a cure for cancer” as such.
“The really hard thing for people to get their head around when they’re talking about cancer is that cancer isn’t just one disease, it’s thousands of different diseases, so there will never be one cure for cancer,” she says.
“Now whether we have some treatments for some particular cancers that end up curing it, I think we will see that. But I think what’s more likely is seeing them treated as a chronic illness, so that people are no longer dying from cancer, but people are able to be living with cancer.”
“And I think we’ve seen that with HIV, where getting HIV used to be a death sentence and now actually people can live very long and healthy lives if it’s managed well with anti-retroviral therapy.”
A need for Indigenous scientists
The other thing that helps her “sleep well at night”, is her passion for Indigenous health and encouraging more Indigenous youth to take up careers in science.
“We’re desperate for more Indigenous scientists,” Jenkins says.
“Certainly with this new explosion of genomic medicines, we don’t want our mob to be left behind with the benefits that can bring. Indigenous people have had genetics for thousands of years – you know, not marrying within your own skin name and all that sort of stuff. So we need to have a voice there, we need to have a place.
“It is still an issue that Indigenous people are not supported, encouraged and have the same access as non-Indigenous people. It’s just such an ingrained thing that Johnny’s going to go and become a footballer not a doctor, so we need to break down those stereotypes first."
SBS Science in collaboration with NITV is showcasing Indigenous Australian scientists. Stay tuned for more profiles in this series over the following weeks!