For Dutchman Dr Joost Lesterhuis the decision to move his family to Perth was fairly straight-forward even though he wasn’t 100% sure where in Australia he was moving to.
The oncologist by trade now specialises in immunotherapy and focuses particularly on mesothelioma (cancer caused by asbestos exposure) and given WA has the highest incidence of the disease in the country, UWA was a perfect fit.
“I completed my medical training in the Netherlands and combined it with a PhD in tumour immunology.
“Immune therapy has always been an area I’m passionate about and back home I started investigating how chemotherapy and immunotherapy could be combined to treat cancer,” he says.
It’s this work that first led to UWA’s Tumour Immunology Group, part of the Medical School renowned for its world-leading work in the area.
“I was here for two years as a visiting post-doc and really enjoyed the innovative research environment and the city’s lifestyle.
“I returned to the Netherlands with my family but we all missed Perth so in 2013 we came back,” he says.
It’s been a positive move for the NHMRC Research Fellow. He was recently awarded an NHMRC Research Excellence Award for being the top ranked fellowship applicant in the biomedical scheme.
In addition, he received the inaugural Bernie Banton Fellowship for the most highly ranked NHMRC applicant working in mesothelioma research, as well as a Cancer Council WA fellowship.
“I couldn’t have been happier to return to UWA and work with this great team again. It’s certainly challenging but really rewarding.
“I’m passionate about our work into mesothelioma. It is quite literally a case of if we don’t research the area who will? It’s a disease that’s just not on the radar of the big pharmaceutical companies.
“I expect that many of our results could be applied to other cancers as well,” he says.
Through his research Joost aims to develop new therapies to boost a person’s immune system against cancer.
“Immunotherapy has made huge steps in the last two years in some cancers. In 20-30 per cent of patients we are seeing massive improvements in their ability to fight the cancer.
“However the remaining 70 per cent see no improvements whatsoever and some cancers – such as mesothelioma - seem to be a lot more resistant than others. We want to find out why some respond so well while others do not,” Joost says.
To tackle the problems he’s taking a multidisciplinary approach to try and identify new effective drug combinations for mesothelioma and other cancers, with clinicians from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, computer scientists from Telethon Kids Institute and UWA colleagues from Mathematics, Biology and Chemistry.
“Perth’s isolation is a great reason to harness the skills and talent on offer and work together. It’s a fantastic place to be.”
Photo: Courtesy Cancer Council of WA