In 2010, a young Ben Buckley was worried. He was a second year biotechnology student, watching his savings quickly drying up while he was scraping by on less than $150 per week. He was worried he’d have to prioritise holding down a job over his studies to continue doing that very thing which he valued most – studying at UOW and pursuing a career in biomedical research.
“I was a university student trying hard to succeed in my academic pursuits, while attempting to support myself on Austudy and rental assistance. I was going to need a part-time job, but I knew that would have negatively impacted my studies,” Dr Buckley says.
It was a Learning and Development Scholarship – now known as Transforming Futures Scholarship – that gave a young man from Batemans Bay the financial reprieve he needed to complete his degree and become a scientist at the cutting edge of cancer research.
“The scholarship made a huge difference in my life. It allowed me to continue to focus on my studies without the stress of having to find and maintain a job. I attribute my good results in my second and third undergraduate years to these funds, which set me up for the beginning of my research career, too.
“It was a privilege to receive this kind of support, so I made sure I really applied myself and made the most of it.”
It is this diligence in making the most of his opportunities that has seen Dr Buckley not only finish his Bachelor’s degree with honours and complete his PhD, but also rise in prominence as a respected young researcher in the field. He is now an Associate Research Fellow at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI).
“Being a young scientist at IHMRI is a real privilege. It’s a very supportive, open and collaborative research environment; there’s a real feeling like everyone is on the same team and that our individual successes contribute to the Institute as a whole. This is by no means the usual situation, so I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to do my work there.”
Philanthropic giving continues to support Dr Buckley’s work with donations from the Illawarra Cancer Carers providing funding for his project.
The subject of his PhD and laboratory work ever since, Dr Buckley is working to enhance the cancer-fighting characteristics of a drug compound called amiloride. His research has the potential to help thousands of people around the world who have the notoriously deadly pancreatic cancer.
“By altering the structure of amiloride, we’ve been able to make it over 100 times stronger at stopping cancer from growing and spreading, known as metastasis,” explains Dr Buckley.
The keen researcher has worked with colleagues at IHMRI, Professor Marie Ranson and Associate Professor Michael Kelso, to take their original idea from a hypothesis, all the way through the early-stage testing and development, proving it works in cells and is effective in treating cancer in mice. He is now working with a drug developer to optimise their product for human use.
“My primary focus now is to do all I can to ensure we have the best versions of our drug candidates – their safest and most efficacious form – before we advance them to clinical trials.”
Surviving the multibillion dollar, decade-long clinical development process has required Dr Buckley’s dogged persistence and ability to constantly adapt as new data came to hand… and a spot of good timing and chance.
“Drug development is a series of hurdles that get higher at each step. Regardless of how much good science and dedication has gone into a new drug candidate, the process is still so unpredictable, so I’ve been fortunate to be involved with a project that has made it this far,” he says.
“It’s been a wonderful experience and it’s afforded me many highlights in my short career already. A standout for me was seeing the results from our pancreatic cancer model for the first time. Our lead compound was able to completely inhibit the formation of any metastasis. This was a huge result for us, and it gave us faith that our approach really could bring benefit to patients in the future.”
In parallel to this goal, Dr Buckley is trying to further establish himself as an independent early-career researcher, conducting innovative research into the effectiveness of his discovery in other diseases it could also help treat, such as tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) and neuropathic pain.
“I’m very passionate about this work. I believe, thanks to the very unique properties of amiloride’s structure, it may be possible to develop multiple drug candidates for different diseases all from the same class of compounds.
“I see my research work as a vocation, rather than just a job. Nothing gets done in research unless you make it happen, and that really appeals to me. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Dr Buckley’s work saw him recognised last year with an IHMRI Young Investigator Award, providing pilot funding to investigate amiloride analogues as new treatments for neuropathic pain. He also won the BridgeTech Program’s 2-minute pitch competition and the resulting prize trip to the US to tour the global headquarters of large pharmaceutical companies, AMGEN, AbbVie and Merck.
“I got to see how it’s done in the big leagues, with facility tours, presentations and intensive meeting sessions with senior stakeholders across the entire span of the drug development process. These people and their experiences are incredibly difficult to access as a basic scientist, so it was a career-altering experience. I learned many valuable lessons there that I now get to apply to our own drug development efforts here that will increase our chances of success.”
Dr Buckley is determined to see his research at IHMRI succeed, and if his progress so far is anything to go by, his plans for the future have the potential to be just as promising. In five years, he hopes to have advanced his amiloride compounds into clinical trials. In 10 years, he’d like to be close to bringing his drug to market, and have a tenured position at UOW. In another decade, he hopes to be seeing the benefits the drug is bringing to patients, and sharing what he’s learned with others.
All made possible from the humble beginnings of a UOW Transforming Futures Scholarship.
“You’re very unlikely to get rich doing science, but there are few lines of work that are more fulfilling than biomedical research. Knowing that what you’re pouring yourself into has a chance to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives is a very special thing.”
Transforming Futures Scholarships was previously known as the Learning and Development Scholarship Fund which was established in 2008. Since then more than 2000 alumni, staff and the members of the wider community have funded 120 student scholarships. Read more about Transforming Futures Scholarships here.