Korri El Khobar

Korri El Khobar is a second year PhD student working with the Storr Liver Centre group at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research. Her research focus is to explore the lipid (fat) metabolism of Hepatitis C in the liver, to better understand how the virus operates.

Korri’s research is what’s referred to as ‘basic’ or ‘discovery’ research, which is directed toward greater knowledge and understanding of the fundamental aspects of medical conditions. This type is research lays the foundation for ‘translational’ research which then tests direct applications of basic research for patient care.

It’s an important distinction in relation to Hep C research, because although there is now an effective cure for Hep C, many aspects of the virus lifecycle remain a mystery. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer in Australia, and it is the as-yet-unknown link between the virus and liver cancer that Korri is investigating.

She has discovered that the protein β-actin (important for building the cytoskeleton of the cell) is altered in Hep C infected cells. This may increase the cell's ability to move around, a typical characteristic of cancer cells.

This is a novel finding and Korri is conducting further experiments to verify her initial results. In particular she wants to determine if the cells have directional motility – i.e. they move in a specific direction. If Korri proves her hypothesis, her research could have implications for cancer research, where treatments could be developed to target the mobile cells and regulate the spread of cancerous cells in the body.

Korri came to Australia after researching Hep C in Indonesia, which has high rates of the disease. The skills she learns at the Westmead Institute, and the networks she is already developing through collaborations with cell mobility experts and cancer researchers, will in the long term be highly beneficial for medical research outcomes, both here and in Indonesia.

Amit Lalwani

Amit Lalwani is a second year PhD student in the diabetes and obesity research group at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research. His research is focused on improving pancreatic islet cell transplant outcomes so people with type 1 diabetes enjoy a better quality of life.


As a type 1 diabetic himself, the drive to find a cure for type 1 diabetes is very personal for Amit.

Islet or whole pancreas transplantation are the only currently available curative treatments for type 1 diabetics. Islet transplantation is preferable because it is surgically less invasive, however it is not 100 per cent successful because there are not enough donors and on average 70 per cent of islet cells die within the first 10 days of transplantation.

Amit’s PhD project is based on improving the islet transplant outcomes by making islet cells (β-cells specifically) stronger so they can withstand the post-transplantation threats, including hyperglycaemia, instant blood-mediated inflammatory reaction, cytokines, free radicals and hypoxia (lack of oxygen).

In addition, Amit is collaborating with researchers at the Garvan Institute to look at an often-debated but unresolved cause of diabetes – environmental triggers such as a viral attack in a susceptible individual that activates the process of autoimmunity, leading to the development of type 1 diabetes.

His preliminary results in mice show an adaptive aberrant response which causes accelerated type 1 diabetes – a novel finding.

Amit’s first year research was of such a high quality that it was accepted for publication, and he believes this current project will also generate positive results that he’ll be able to publish in a high-impact medical journal.

Gang (Kevin) Zhou

Gang (Kevin) Zhou is a second year PhD student at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, working in the Storr Liver Centre. His research project aims to kill liver cancer cells from the inside out, by targeting liver cancer stem cells.

Existing cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy are far from curative and often patients experience the return of their cancer. These treatments attack cancer cells from the outside, but a relatively new idea is to target the cancer stem cells which are believed to be the root cause of the cancer.

Using a chemical antibody (known as aptamer) combined with an anti-cancer drug, Kevin is working to first penetrate the cancer stem cell wall so the drug can access the stem cells and kill the entire cancer cells from the root. His initial tests have been extremely promising and the drug appears to be specifically toxic to the cancer stem cells but only have minimal toxicity for the surrounding normal cells.

Kevin is a hard-working, self-motivated problem solver. As this is a very new area of cancer research he has needed to do a lot of scientific reading to get ideas for his project and overcome roadblocks.

Storr Liver Centre has a long collaboration with the School of Medicine of the Deakin University. Kevin visited Deakin University to learn some of the specialised state-of-the-art technology from has applied the new technology he learnt to his experimental work at the Storr Liver Centre at the Westmead Institute.

For example, Kevin can see the proof of his successful initial in-vitro testing under the confocal microscopy and live-cell imaging microscope. Here is it is possible to watch if the drug-carrying aptamer can enter the cancer cells, and with the live-cell imaging tool, the activity of the cancer cells can be monitored. Kevin has shown that when the cancer cells were treated with aptamer carrying the chemo drug, the aptamer-drug combination can penetrate the cancer stem cell walls, causing the stem cells to stop moving and die.

Kevin’s project is funded by the NSW Cancer Council, a good indication that if successful his research results could be applied to other cancers.

Nicolas Sokolowski

PhD student Nicolas (Nic) Sokolowski is part of the Centre for Virus Research at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, and his focus is to design a virus that will help treat melanoma patients.

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and according to the Cancer Council, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70 years old, making this research a significant hope for public health.

In his first year at the Westmead Institute, Nic has conducted the preliminary testing on how the herpes simplex virus reacts with cancer cells – investigating how the virus breaks down and kills solid melanoma cancers, and how it could be more effective.

His project should ultimately result in a modified herpes virus which targets cancerous cells in the body without affecting normal cells. His virus will also be able to more effectively target a pathway that is utilised by many different cancers for enhanced growth and survival. Cancers often develop resistance to drugs that currently target this pathway.

Treatment for cancer is usually via a combination of therapies that kick in at various stages of the tumour life cycle. Adding a viral treatment to this approach will help avoid tumours becoming resistant – an increasing problem for a wide range of public health areas.

The concept of using viruses to target cancer is not new, but only very recently have there been positive breakthroughs. This is encouraging for researchers like Nic who have the opportunity to work collaboratively with cancer researchers and turn this discovery based research into more translational research with real impacts on Australian health.

Padmashree Rao

Padmashree (Padma) Rao is a first year PhD student working in the Centre for Transplant and Real Research where she is investigating how to arrest the progress of fibrosis (scarring) in unhealthy kidneys.

Chronic kidney disease affects 1 in 3 Australians, particularly those who are obese or have diabetes. This results in kidney fibrosis which cannot be reversed and is life-threatening for patients. There is a long waitlist for organ transplants.

Padma’s research focuses on the mechanism behind fibrosis development in the kidney - the ‘transforming growth factor β" (TGF-β) which is a key cause of fibrosis. TGF- β has two main functions: anti-inflammatory (good healing i.e. wanted effects), and profibrotic (over-healing which causes scarring, i.e. unwanted effects).

By testing scar tissue cells with various treatments, Padma aims to keep the good anti-inflammatory properties of the TGF-β, while knocking out the (bad) profibrotic properties – so the scarring doesn’t happen. It’s a fine balance, as the tissue cells cannot survive if TGF-β is inhibited completely.

Padma’s initial tests on cell lines (in-vitro) have had promising results; the cells survived with no sign of fibrosis. She has further tests to conduct before she moves into the next phase – in-vivo testing in mice.

Padma’s research is very important for the development of effective treatments for chronic kidney disease patients. However, her research could be even more far-reaching; loss of organ function from fibrosis is a common pathway to organ failure, meaning her results might one day be applied to people suffering from liver and heart disease.