Research triumphs for Greek Australian of the Year

Professor Vasso Apostopoulos talks to Neos Kosmos about her role in the quest to develop a vaccine for breast cancer

A dedication to cancer research and to develop a vaccine against breast cancer has seen Professor Vasso Apostopoulos awarded this year’s Greek Australian of the year.

Personally, I would like my piece to the puzzle to become a major piece in the development of a vaccine for breast cancer.

Apostolopoulos, who hails from St Albans in Melbourne’s west, while her parents are both from the same region in Greece – Amaliada, Nomos Ilias, Peloponnese – says she was interested in science, mathematics and the health sector from a young age.

The majority of Apostopoulos’ research has been in developing vaccines and delivery methods for breast cancer.

She has also focused her research on ovarian, prostate and lung cancer and is involved in researching infectious diseases and autoimmunity, especially multiple sclerosis.

In the last ten years, major advances in medical research have increased knowledge and understanding of diseases and have led to new and improved treatments, Apostopoulos says.

“Research in general is moving forward at a fast pace.

“It’s not only technology (computers, mobile phones, cameras etc) that is moving at an incredible speed, but also medical research. One must constantly keep up,” she says.

Apostopoulos says that contrary to significant new findings affecting her research in a negative way, everything that is being published and developed, complements her research, to move forward.

Within the medical field, Apostopoulos says she hopes to “add her piece to the puzzle” so that new treatments can become available for many diseases.

“Personally, I would like my piece to the puzzle to become a major piece in the development of a vaccine for breast cancer,” she says.

Apostopoulos’ specialist area of cancer research is in the development of a vaccine for breast and ovarian cancer.

“Over 13 human clinical trials have been completed based on my research and at present the vaccine that I have developed is being tested by a pharmaceutical company in the USA, and has been approved by the FDA,” she says.

“Hopefully, the vaccine will be become available as an immunotherapeutic treatment option against breast and ovarian cancer in the next few years,” she says.

This work is important as there are currently no treatments for ovarian cancer, Apostopoulos says.

“If one could be injected with a vaccine to prevent recurrences or be injected to prevent ovarian cancer from developing, then this is a major advance in the prevention and treatment of ovarian cancer,” she says.

Apostopoulos, who has honorary Professorial positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and Victoria University, also gives occasional lectures as a guest lecturer to medical, dental, nursing and science students, and supervises BSc honours, Masters, PhD and MD students from these universities.

Her grandfather’s early death from a brain tumour is what prompted her interest in the cancer field.

After completing a Bachelor of Science with honours and a PhD from the University of Melbourne and Austin Research Institute, as well as an advanced certificate in Protein crystallography from the University of London,

Apostopoulos worked as a post doctoral fellow for three years where she co-headed the Immunology and Vaccine Laboratory at the Austin Research Institute.

She continued her cancer vaccine studies and expanded into two large labs: her own and the clinical trials laboratory.

During this time, Apostopoulos worked for short periods on collaborative projects at the University of Oxford, UK, and at the John Curtin School for Medical Research in Canberra.

In 1998 she was awarded the prestigious NHMRC CJ Martin Fellowship from the Australian government and undertook studies at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California.

After three years she returned to the Austin Research Institute and headed the Immunology and Vaccine laboratory.

A year later she was awarded the prestigious NHMRC RD Wright Fellowship from the Australian government and received numerous grants, which resulted in expansion of her laboratory.

In 2006 the Austin Research Institute merged with the Burnet Institute in Prahran, which is now known as the Burnet Institute, where Apostopoulos works today.
The busy mother of two said organisation is key to managing her workload.

With two young daughters – Vivian Akrivi, 4, and Lia Hariklia, 16 months – Apostopoulos says she has had to make major changes in her organisational skills to accommodate work and being a good mum.

“Anything can be done with hard work and good organisation and planning,” she says.

This month will see women “frocking up” as part of the Frocktober campaign, a fundraising initiative aimed at raising funds for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF).

Campaigns like these highlight the importance of fundraising for cancer research, Apostopoulos says.

“I get involved in many cancer fundraising events.

“Fundraising is very important as much needed funds are donated to cancer research, which helps the research move forward,” she says.

While funds are provided by the Australian government, there are constant cut backs and less and less money is given each year, with not everyone receiving important funding, Apostopoulos says.

“A lot of research relies on important fundraising events that take place,” Apostopoulos says, identifying the Greek community as major contributors to this.

“In my own personal experience with the Greek Community, if it wasn’t for their important fundraising events and donations towards my research, over the last 16 years, we would not have been at the stage with the vaccine that we are at.”