Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler

Making Chemotherapy Safer

Key Facts

  • About one third of all cancer patients suffer from an infection during or soon after their chemotherapy because of immunosuppression associated with treatment.

  • In 2013 about 125,000 Australians will be diagnosed with cancer.

  • By 2020, this number is set to rise to about 150,000 people.

  • In Australia alone, over 5000 cancer patients are hospitalised each year due to the side effects of their chemotherapy treatment, not the underlying disease.


Mater Medical Research Institute, Brisbane

Grant Amount

$434,883 (2009-2011)

Research Team members

  • Ms Valerie Barbier

  • Associate Professor Jean-Pierre Levesque

  • Mrs Bianca Nowlan

Early in her career, Associate Professor Ingrid Winkler worked in hospitals helping cancer patients.  It was during this time, as she treated the side effects of chemotherapy, that she became determined to find new ways to protect the body during cancer treatment.

“While cancer treatment fights the disease, it can also lead to side effects which range from inconvenient to life threatening,” Associate Professor Winkler says.

In an effort to reduce some of the more damaging impacts of chemotherapy, Associate Professor Winkler and her team at the Mater Medical Research Institute in Brisbane looked for ways to protect the bone marrow, an essential part of our body’s immune system and our ongoing fight against infection.

Haematopoietic stem cells (HSC) in adult bone marrow make all our blood and immune cells. But HSCs can be damaged by chemotherapy leading to blood and bone marrow failure. 

This happens because chemotherapy kills rapidly growing cells, like cancer cells.  But chemotherapy also kills normal, rapidly growing healthy cells in the bone marrow. As a result, the cancer patient’s immune system is weakened, giving rise to potentially life-threatening infections.

Associate Professor Winkler and her team identified an adhesion molecule, E-selectin, in the bone marrow which regulates HSC behaviour, and in turn can protect these vital cells during chemotherapy.

Associate Professor Winkler explains, “We discovered the molecular switch that the body uses to put bone marrow cells to sleep and protected during chemotherapy, or awake and regenerating the blood and immune system following chemotherapy.”

It is anticipated that inhibiting this molecule will help to minimise HSC damage during chemotherapy, and also enhance the success of bone marrow transplantation.

“This breakthrough is particularly important for patients undergoing repeated rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, as these patients are most at risk of treatment-induced immune suppression leading to infections and treatment-associated death.”

Next steps

The exciting outcomes from this research may make chemotherapy treatment far less dangerous, reduce secondary infections, and help patients recover far more quickly – getting back to normal life at work, with their families and in their communities.

Next steps include exploring how treatment strategies can be optimised to accelerate recovery from chemotherapy.