Walter and Eliza Hall Institute cancer researcher Professor Jane Visvader has received a $4 million fellowship from the Australian Government to continue her work into the origin of breast, ovarian and lung cancers.

Professor Visvader is one of six scientists this year to be awarded an Australia Fellowship by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The fellowships support researchers who are undertaking medical research with the potential to significantly benefit Australians.

Professor Visvader, joint-head of the institute's Stem Cells and Cancer division, said she felt honoured to receive the fellowship. "I was elated to hear the news of the Australia Fellowship," she said. "It is important to note that this fellowship reflects the research efforts of a dedicated team of people who I've been very fortunate to work with over many years, including my close collaborator Professor Geoff Lindeman."

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said the fellowship would support the expansion of the institute's breast cancer research program, support new research into other cancers, and help translate the findings into improved therapies for cancer patients.

"This award is a wonderful acknowledgement of the dedication of Professor Visvader and her colleagues, and the inventive approach they have taken to tackling one of Australia's most devastating diseases," Professor Hilton said.

Professor Visvader said the fellowship would support new research into epithelial cancers, a major cause of cancer mortality worldwide.

"Epithelial cancers account for 80 per cent of human cancers," she said. "One of the aims of our research is to identify which cell types are predisposed to becoming cancerous and those that propagate the disease."

Breast, ovarian and lung cancers are all epithelial cancers. The term 'epithelial' is used to reflect the cell-type from which the cancer arises. Professor Visvader said that even with improved treatment strategies, epithelial cancers were notoriously hard to treat and continue to have a poor prognosis. She also emphasised that, despite accounting for a vast proportion of cancers in the population, remarkably little is known about the normal cells that make up epithelial organs such as breast and lung and how they give rise to cancer.

"Before we can combat these cancers, we need a comprehensive understanding of the biology underlying development of the normal organ and the cell types that reside in the tissue," she said. "This research on the basic biology of epithelial organs will help us understand which cells and molecular pathways go awry in epithelial cancers. With this information, we'll be in a better position to translate our findings to better clinical outcomes for cancer patients, by identifying molecules that will be useful for diagnosis and prognosis, as well as new therapies."

Professor Visvader's group has made a number of important discoveries in the field, including identification of two types of cells breast stem cells and another 'daughter' (progenitor) cell called the luminal progenitor that play a role in breast cancer.

"Our research indicates that breast stem cells and luminal progenitor cells are each predisposed to becoming cancerous under different conditions," she said. "The lessons learnt from studying stem and progenitor cells in breast tissue will now be extended to ovarian and lung cancer. Our division recently established an ovarian cancer laboratory and will take a similar approach to studying lung cancer. All of these programs will be linked to clinical research programs, in order to accelerate the pace of discovery and improved cancer outcomes for patients."