Graduate’s research aims to inhibit the spread of cancer

Graduate’s research aims to inhibit the spread of cancer

Chemistry holds key to altruistic career for Dr Andrew Montgomery

It’s little wonder that PhD studies have been fulfilling for Dr Andrew Montgomery, who celebrates his graduation from the University of Wollongong on 6 November.

Dr Montgomery pursued cancer research in the School of Chemistry, driven by the desire to work towards something that might be useful for others.

He acknowledges the impact of cancer on the people around him, including his grandfather who had prostate cancer, may have been a motivating factor.

But above that, he wanted to explore a relatively unchartered area of research to make a powerful impact on the community.

The project was initially geared towards pancreatic cancer, which has an eight per cent survival rate within five years of diagnosis.

“I picked a target that was needed rather than something that had been done before,” Dr Montgomery said.

The research he did from 2015 to 2019 has laid the foundations for continuing cancer studies at UOW.

His work is being tested further by the next generation of students in a research group led by Associate Professor Danielle Skropeta.

“The main aim of the research undertaken during my PhD was to develop compounds that would be able to prevent cancerous cells from spreading to secondary sites in the body or metastasising,” Dr Montgomery said.

“This is an important target as around 90 per cent of patients who succumb to cancer die as a result of having multiple tumours in their body. Despite this there is a lack of anti-metastatic drugs available on the market and thus is an important area for further research.”

Patience is critical in any PhD, a virtue Mr Montgomery has developed over the course of his thesis.

It might be a while before a drug he has helped to develop becomes available at the pharmacy.

Despite promising results, students, researchers from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, and other collaborators are still doing the due diligence of tests, and they will design an improved compound based on the results before they can pass their knowledge on to pharmacologists, who would undertake their own testing. After a positive result there, a drug company would carry out clinical trials on humans.

“They’ll test the compounds I’ve developed against cancer cells and normal cells, hoping for selectivity, that they kill cancer cells and not normal cells,” Dr Montgomery said.

“The compounds that I synthesised have shown promising results in a number of biological assays, particularly in a cellular model of liver cancer.”

The positive results, so far, come after a series of trials and errors.

“Any person who does a PhD would tell you a lot of it is about perseverance,” Dr Montgomery said.

“A lot of times things that look good on paper won’t work, and you have to troubleshoot, work out why a certain technique isn’t working. You can’t take it personally if things don’t work. If you think you had that skill of perseverance before you started, you didn’t, it’s something you gain.”

Research can be a lonely endeavour, and so Dr Montgomery went out of his way to make connections at UOW, even becoming the Vice President of the UOW Chemistry Society.

“It was great, it was a nice way to get to know everybody, and it created a nice environment to work in. Otherwise a lot of us would be stuck in our bubbles doing what we were doing,” he said.

He remains in close contact with his research colleagues and looks forward to seeing what will unfold as a result of his work.

“It’s quite exciting to hear news about the compounds I’ve made,” Dr Montgomery said.

The skills he fine-tuned during his PhD are being put to use in his current role at the University of Sydney, where he is a drug discovery initiative fellow.

“I like doing something new every day,” he said.

“With research, you’re the first person to make the compound, and I have the freedom of being able to pursue what interests me. In my career I want to work towards something that might be useful for people, and contribute knowledge for the greater sphere of things.”