1. Please give a summary of your research.
Dr. Hawkins’ research career has focused on understanding how immune cells and cancers grow, die and differentiate. By studying these processes, we have gained great insight into how the immune system protects us from infection, but also how cancer can develop when this machinery fails. To explore this, Dr. Hawkins has pioneered the new types of microscopy that allows us to directly watch these processes in action. To achieve this, Dr. Hawkins developed new imaging technology and collected data on thousands of individual cells and their descendants. These studies formed the foundation for groundbreaking studies in the field of immunology including work published in Science.
Recently, Dr. Hawkins has developed a groundbreaking system so we can acquire data on immune and cancer cells at an unprecedented level of resolution. 3D printed optical windows are surgically implanted into bones of living models of disease processes. Using 2-photon microscopy, these optical windows can be used to repeatedly review and re-assess the very same anatomical site in the same living tissue every day over weeks. With this impactful technology we can now visualise in real time, the emergence of individual cancer cells and clones responsible for the deaths of many Australians every year.
Dr. Hawkins has used this approach to generate 3 dimensional maps of the entire bone tissue as blood cancers develop from a few single transformed cancer cells into fully infiltrated tissue over the period of weeks. Perhaps even more importantly, this approach has been used to ‘watch’ the selection of resistant cancer cells as we can visualise the response of cancer cells during chemotherapy, a key issue with respect to overall outcome in many aggressive blood cancers, and indeed many other types of cancer. With this information, we are understanding better ways of treating cancer and immune disease.
2. Please include any additional details you would like to share
This project drew its inspiration from the way Google Earth innovated how we view and engage with the world we live in. The core innovation that differentiates this project from others, is the ability to generate large-scale high-resolution 3D rendered maps of organs that play a critical role in cancer growth. The technology allows researchers to re-map the same organs repeatedly over weeks to understand how cancer behaves over time. No other current technique allows collection of wide resolution of data from the macro to the micro scale. Furthermore, no current technology lets you watch this process over days.
Dr. Hawkins’ technique is now being applied to understand the biology of protective immune cells during vaccination, development of autoimmunity, metastatic cancer and immunotherapy. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Australia – 44,000 people will die from the disease in Australia every year. An estimated 130,470 new cases of cancer will have been diagnosed in Australia in 2017, with that number set to rise to 150,000 by 2020. The most common cancers in Australia are solid cancers including prostate, breast, colorectal and melanoma, which account for over 50% of all cancers diagnosed. When solid cancers spread throughout the body, this is called secondary cancer (or metastasis). This accounts for 90% of all cancer deaths. However, we currently understand very little about metastatic cancer cells, i.e., how active they are and how they are able to move throughout the body. Using Dr Hawkins’ techniques we are visualising how metastatic cancer develops, and how we can target these cells with new therapeutic approaches including directly visualising cutting edge approaches such as immunotherapy. Dr. Hawkins and team are also applying this technique to develop new therapies for autoimmune diseases such as Lupus that affects 1/1000 Australians and incurable blood cancers.