3 February 2023

Immunologist Dr Jason Waithman leads the Cancer Immunotherapy Group at the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia.

'I am passionate about finding cures for cancer,' said Dr Waithman.

'The defining moment for me, the thing that really decided me on pursuing cancer research as a career path, came after I received a phone call from a lady whose husband was dying from cancer.

'She had a young family and, as a father of four children myself, I immediately identified with their circumstances. I was deeply moved and had a "Eureka" moment as I realised that I had a unique opportunity to make a difference'. Dr Waithman

This story is part of our 10 of the Best - thirteenth edition. 10 of the Best is an annual NHMRC publication, showcasing 10 NHMRC-funded health and medical research projects. See more 10 of the Best.

Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children, and Dr Waithman's team focuses on cancers that particularly affect this age group. These include:

  • Leukaemia – the most common cancer affecting children1 and the second most common cause of cancer-related death2
  • Melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer3 and one of the most common cancers among Australian adolescents and young adults.4
Photo of a Dr Waithman wearing a white lab coat, in a lab holding a test tube.
Photo supplied by: Telethon Kids Institute and University of Western Australia

Using funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council's (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship, Dr Waithman's team has been developing a personalised cancer immunotherapy which offers the potential to harness the body's own natural immune defences to fight cancer.

'Cancer cells can remain dormant for prolonged periods, but this phenomenon has traditionally been poorly understood because when cancer cells are asleep it is very difficult to identify them,' Dr Waithman explained.

'My collaborators and I developed a platform to study such dormant cancers, enabling us to identify that tissue-resident memory T cells are key drivers of cancer dormancy.

'These T cells act like a security guard for cancers, surrounding them and keeping them under control so they can't escape and grow. By harnessing the power of these T cells, we have the potential to keep a wide range of cancers in a dormant state for decades, or even indefinitely.

'My team has also identified the immune cell types responsible for stimulating T cell immunity to cancer. Based on this knowledge, we have developed several strategies enabling us to engage this immune axis with greater success to improve cancer control. It is anticipated this research will improve cancer vaccination and adoptive cell therapy protocols.

'Cancer immunotherapy as a discipline is delivering promising and vital alternative therapies for both adults and children in our efforts to control and cure cancer,' Dr Waithman said.

'However, immunotherapies on the whole provide vastly different outcomes between patients and cancer types. A number of key questions about why this might be, and how immunotherapy's potential can be maximised, still remain.' Dr Waithman explained.

Next steps

Dr Waithman and his team aim to leverage these novel discoveries in the next phase of their research.

'A key goal of our future research is to train immunologists to use advanced genomic data science to extract deep insights into the mechanisms governing disease states and to tailor therapeutic approaches accordingly,' said Dr Waithman.

Chief Investigator (CIA)

Dr Jason Waithman


Telethon Kids Institute and University of Western Australia


Immunity to melanoma

Team members

Dr Jesse Armitage

Dr Bree Foley

Dr Alison McDonnell

Dr Lucy Barrett

Ms Katherine Audsley

Ms Hannah Newnes

Ms Samantha Barnes

Mr Kai Plunkett

Grant information



Career Development Fellowship

1 Cancer Council Cancer Council and childhood cancers, Cancer Council website

2 Leukaemia Foundation Blood cancer facts and figures, Leukaemia Foundation website

3 Skin Cancer Foundation Melanoma Overview: A Dangerous Skin Cancer, Skin Cancer Foundation website

4 AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (2018) Cancer in adolescents and young adults in Australia, AIHW website