Killing cancer without collateral damage


Associate Professor Roger Martin

12 November 2009

A new technique in the fight against cancer targets radioactive atoms to tumour cells without damaging adjacent normal cells.

Associate Professor Roger Martin and his team are developing and refining that technique at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. Here he tells Dr Andi Horvath about the motivation that comes from researching in a hospital environment. He also explains how studying chemistry led to medical research and how scientists are constantly on a journey of learning.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.

Introduction: I’m Dr Andi Horvath. Come with me and meet these Chief Investigators of medical research projects. Let’s go find Associate Professor Roger Martin from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Melbourne. He’s involved in finding the DNA of tumour cells.

Interviewer: Roger, if you had to describe to my student friends what you do, what would you say?

Assoc Prof Martin: I would say that we have a new way of damaging DNA and killing cells with a very special sort of radioactive atom and the whole research project is about getting that radioactive atom in the right place in the cell and of course also getting it to the right cells – just to the tumour cells and not to normal cells.

Interviewer: What sort of things do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Assoc Prof Martin: Well at the moment at this stage of my career I don’t spend much time in a lab coat. I spend most of my time thinking and writing and reading and talking to people, particularly helping students with their experiments and designing their experiments, interpreting results and helping them write their reports.

Interviewer: Roger how big is your team, how many people would you talk to during the day?

Assoc Prof Martin: Well there’s about twelve on my team at the moment but it does vary. It’s probably at a peak now and normally the team’s been somewhat smaller. We’ve got quite a lot of BSc (Bachelor of Science) Honours students, so we’ve got three Honours students in our lab at the moment, a bit more than usual but it’s great.

Interviewer: Roger, how did you get interested in your field, what ignited your imagination?

Assoc Prof Martin: Well I guess my field’s changed a little bit during my career, but the thing that I find most stimulating is that Peter Mac Research is actually part of the hospital, so we’re kind of in the midst of the hospital environment and we share lifts with patients and it is kind of very inspiring in terms of motivating you to try and make a difference.

Interviewer: So what’s the most exciting part of your job, Roger?

Assoc Prof Martin: The most exciting thing is when you’re doing an experiment and it works. You get the result that you’re hoping for or expecting and especially when you get it for the first time. I mean, in research you have to repeat things quite often but when you see that result for the first time – it might be just a spot on a piece of paper, a gel or something – but that’s exciting. One particularly busy time of the year is around January because grant applications – like NHMRC grant applications – are due in the first part of the year so often people are busy working on applications pretty soon after they celebrate Christmas.

Interviewer: And if you weren’t a medical researcher, what do you think you would be?

Assoc Prof Martin: Well you know I was very close to being involved in woodwork. My father was very keen that I should enter this trade and I almost did but my mother went and saw the headmaster at school and he said, no your boy should do something else. And so I’m very grateful for that headmaster who was actually Bill Woodfull at Melbourne High School, so he suggested I should do science and I’m very pleased that he did, but I still like woodwork.

Interviewer: And do you still do a little bit at home?

Assoc Prof Martin: I still do a little bit, yes.

Interviewer: How long did it take to become a researcher, how does it work?

Assoc Prof Martin: I suppose it’s ongoing. I mean, I think that a scientist is always a student because there’s always new things to learn. So the simple answer I think is forever. It’s just a constant journey and I think that’s one of the good things about – I’d imagine any field of research not just medical research, but it’s a fact that things are changing, developing.

Interviewer: You’re always looking at something new?

Assoc Prof Martin: Yes that’s right, that’s right.

Interviewer: Roger, one last question for you. What course of study would you recommend to someone who thinks they might be interested in a career in medical research?

Assoc Prof Martin: Before I answer let me say that people come from everywhere to do medical research so there are people who did veterinary science – we have one guy in the lab who’s come from doing software design, you know from the computer field, some people do the traditional thing of doing science, some do medicine.

Interviewer: Okay, is that what you did Roger?

Assoc Prof Martin: I started in chemistry but I think that chemistry’s the basis of, well, I’d say almost everything, not just medical research but cooking. So I think chemistry’s a good grounding as well, but then you need to spend time and get involved in the biology so you know there are many ways of getting there. But if a young person came to me and said what’s the best preparation – if they had the opportunity to get into medicine, well then that’s the course I’d suggest. But if a person’s really keen to do medical research but for one reason or other can’t make it to medical school, well then chemistry and biomedical sciences is a good entrée.

Interviewer: Thanks for talking to us.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other Health and Medical Research issues on our website at