Leukaemia pioneer 'customising' cancer treatment receives major research award

06 Oct 2017
Leukaemia pioneer 'customising' cancer treatment receives major research award

Australian research that is transforming the lives of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) has won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence. 

Professor Timothy Hughes - considered a world-leader in CML research - has won the award for pioneering the use of tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), a therapy now becoming available for many cancers. His team has demonstrated that molecular monitoring of response to TKI therapy enables it to be “customised” to enhance the chances for each patient to achieve durable remissions while minimising the risks of drug resistance and disease progression.

CML was once considered a devastating form of blood cancer with less than one in six patients surviving eight years past their diagnosis1. However, the introduction of treatment with TKIs and research into individualising therapy according to response, led by Professor Hughes and his team, has resulted in some patients achieving treatment free cancer remission2.

There are over 2,500 CML patients in Australia currently receiving treatment with TKIs3. Each year, over 300 patients in Australia begin treatment with TKIs to treatment their CML diagnosis3.

“The remarkable success of TKI therapy for CML is a great example of effective collaboration between scientists, clinicians and the pharmaceutical industry. The original clinical trials into the first generation of TKIs gave us unique insights into the dynamics of response and the mechanisms of drug resistance. This drove the development of second and third generation TKIs, which have further improved outcomes for patients,” said Professor Hughes.

Professor Hughes and his team at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute are currently focused on treatment response to optimise disease management and patient outcomes. The $80,000 prize that comes with the GSK Award for Research Excellence will help support a Leukaemia Fellow to work alongside Professor Hughes in furthering research into CML. 

The award was presented to Professor Hughes at Research Australia’s Health and Medical Research Awards 2017 in Melbourne. Dr Andrew Weekes, Medical Director, GSK Australia, said GSK is proud to be able to support Australian researchers with this award, now in its 37th year. 

“The work of Professor Hughes and his team is a standout example of the impact Australian researchers can have on patients’ lives on a global scale. A mindset of both innovation and collaboration is necessary to achieve such remarkable outcomes. My hope is that by highlighting this team’s achievements and further supporting their work we can inspire others in the quest to develop effective approaches to areas of high unmet medical need,” said Dr Weekes. 

Professor Hughes believes patient participation in clinical trials has been the engine driving the team’s success and he encourages other cancer communities to support their researchers. However, a recent study identified a range of barrier to patient recruitment and retention, including poor infrastructure and low awareness among patients4.

“One of the biggest challenges in cancer research is recruiting patients to participate in clinical trials. Patients are generally very keen to join studies, but there are lots of barriers in the health system that keep trial numbers down4. A key to our success has been the willingness of CML patients around Australia to join our clinical trials. It’s quite remarkable to me that the motivation to join these clinical trials is almost always to help others in the CML community, since there is no guarantee that the trial will work for them personally,” said Professor Hughes.  

“Over half of our Adelaide CML patient group have been involved in one or more clinical trial and even more have joined our National CML Registry to facilitate further research. This incredible participation rate has allowed the field to move swiftly over the past decade,” said Professor Hughes. 

Cancer Council SA Chief Executive, Mr Lincoln Size, said that the ground-breaking work of Professor Tim Hughes is transforming the lives of many South Australians impacted with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia and on behalf of Cancer Council SA, congratulated him on receiving the GSK Award for Research Excellence.  

“We are pleased to partner with the State Government and the South Australian Medical Research Institute through the Beat Cancer Project to fund the work of leading South Australian Researchers including Professor Hughes,” Mr Size said. 

“As a former Board Member of Cancer Council SA, we are delighted to see him receive such outstanding recognition and know that his work in TKI Therapy will have long lasting, positive impacts on those diagnosed with this previously devastating disease.  

“The Beat Cancer Project will continue to support researchers such as Professor Hughes in the ongoing pursuit towards a cancer free future.” 

The GSK Award for Research Excellence is one of the most prestigious awards available to the Australian medical research community. It has been awarded since 1980 to recognise outstanding achievements in medical research with potential importance to human health.

Among the previous recipients of the GSK Award for Research Excellence are Australia’s most noted scientific researchers, including Professor Tony Basten (1980), Professor Nicos Nicola (1993), Professor Peter Koopman (2007) and Professor Kathryn North (2011). The 2016 GSK Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professors Arthur Christopoulos and Patrick Sexton from Monash University for their research into targeting medicines that treat chronic conditions. 


  1. Kantarjian et al. Improved survival in chronic myeloid leukaemia since the introduction of imatinib therapy: a single-institution historical experience. BLOOD 2012 19(9): 1981–1987.
  2. Hughes TP, Ross DM.  Moving treatment-free remission into mainstream clinical practice in CML. BLOOD 2016 128 (1) 17-23.
  3. Department of Health (2014) Drug utilisation sub-committee. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors for the treatment of Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia, February 2014.

This media release was issued by Palin Communications on behalf of GSK.