10 March 2021 Home page

Researcher Profile – Dr Cassy Spiller

Dr Cassy Spiller, Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Queensland, was a recipient of the Mary McConnel Career Boost Grant in 2020 to assist her in leading a ground-breaking study focused on the development of a non-invasive diagnostic and prognostic test for pre-malignant adolescent testicular cancer.

Dr Spiller told us “The Mary McConnel Career Boost Grant is providing key funding that allows me to keep my research program afloat, allowing me time to apply for fellowships and grants to pursue my research interests into the future. Key to the progress I have made in the last 6 months has been interaction with my appointed mentor, Prof Allison Pettit. Not only has she provided me with great strategies for maintaining a good work/life balance parenting small children (from her own experiences), but she has also offered practical help with improvement/feedback on fellowship applications.

My message for CHF supporters is that your support is helping REAL people do AMAZING things – and Thank You! Our successes as Australian researchers are successes for the entire Australian community and I hope every supporter is proud to feel ownership of the discoveries that we are making with their help”.

Here Dr Cassy Spiller tells us more about herself, where and what she studied, how she got into research, and what she hopes to achieve.

Growing up in a tiny town in country NSW I had no real concept of what laboratory research would look like, or where it would take me, but I knew that science and biology were where my passion and interests lay. I chose Newcastle as a sort of ‘big country town’ as opposed to Sydney which was just a bit too scary for a 17-year-old country girl leaving home for the first time.

I completed a Bachelor of Science (Biotechnology) at the University of Newcastle, NSW. I then went on to complete Honours there also, studying a critical process sperm undergo to make them capable of fertilising an egg.

I moved to Brisbane to do my PhD in the area of reproductive development at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, UQ – studying how the testes and ovaries develop in a growing fetus.

My fascination with reproduction began during Honours, and I have continued this line of research ever since (going on 17 years now).

Reproduction is a fundamental biological process critical for sustaining all life. Mammalian reproduction is especially fascinating due to the production of two highly specialised cell types – the eggs and sperm – that are able to join and produce an embryo. My Honours research was involved in understanding sperm biology so when I was given the opportunity to do a PhD in reproductive developmental biology, I saw this as the next step in the cycle of reproductive life. (That is, how an egg, fertilised by a sperm then develops into an embryo, and how the process of sperm and egg production in the fetus is carefully controlled so that they will develop into a fertile adult).

I moved into adolescent cancer research when I was able to link one of my fundamental developmental biology discoveries in mouse embryos, to the initiation and progression of human adolescent testis cancer. Testis cancer begins in the womb when the cells that will become sperm don’t develop correctly; these abnormal cells wait patiently in the testes until puberty when they are triggered by the hormonal surge to turn cancerous. I set up a collaboration with a world leader in testis cancer biology (based in the Netherlands) and part of my research is now focused on uncovering the fundamental biological mechanisms that underlie testis cancer initiation so that we can develop new methods for detection and treatment of this disease.

The aim of my research is to improve understanding of the biological mechanisms that underlie the initiation, progression, and prevention of testicular cancer. I focus on how this type of cancer is “seeded” during embryonic development in the womb and then triggered to develop into cancer at puberty in young boys.

As a developmental biologist, I am curious as to what exactly goes wrong, at the cellular and molecular level, during embryonic life, that predisposes young boys to testis cancer at puberty.

I want to understand which genetic pathways are involved to trigger this disease because when we understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ we are in a great place to then identify molecular markers suitable for use in diagnostics and treatments.

My research is important because testis cancer is the most common malignancy in young men and it is increasing in prevalence, though, worryingly, we don’t know why. Although current treatment for testis cancer is usually life sparing, the survivors of treatment are often left infertile, taking hormone therapies, and dealing with secondary medical complications for the rest of their lives.  Because patients are often boys at the first presentation of the disease, they must live with these ramifications for 70+ years.

Testis cancer is a unique cancer in that because it is “seeded” many years before cancer develops, we have the possibility of identifying those individuals harbouring the cells that will go on to transform into cancer at puberty. If we could screen for these boys/men, we could greatly reduce (or even possibly eradicate) this disease with monitoring and early treatment. As a mother of two young boys, I know I would personally jump at the chance of such a screen for them.

Because of its underlying biology – which offers the potential for detection prior to malignancy – I see testis cancer as an ‘unnecessary’ cancer that we can hopefully one day remove from our children’s lives.

My research program has uncovered new signalling pathways that control differentiation and pluripotency (ie ‘stemness’) in the cells that will become sperm and includes discoveries that are now being assessed for use as a new human testis cancer diagnostic.

As I consolidate my training this far, and continue to benefit from the international collaborations that I have fostered, my next aim is to tackle how environmental chemical exposure impacts upon unborn fetuses to damage their reproductive development, predisposition to testis cancer, and overall lifelong fertility prospects.

Using methods that will determine exactly which signalling pathways and processes are disrupted, we should be in a better position to assess and regulate chemical exposure levels in our communities, and to make rational choices regarding safe replacements for these chemicals.

Growing up in the country, seeing the sheer volume and wide range of chemicals used in farming practice – chemicals that we are exposing ourselves (and our unborn offspring) to – I think it is in our national interest, for future generations, to develop research strength in this area.

The most challenging aspect of my work is the frustration at having to apply for research funding constantly, when I really want to be at the lab bench doing the exciting research.

The most rewarding aspects of my job are training students and getting to watch them grow into independent thinkers and great researchers. I also love the collaborative aspects of research and I immensely enjoy my research visits to my collaborator’s laboratories where I am exposed to different research environments (hospitals) as well as different ways of thinking (clinicians versus fundamental biologists).

The relationship with your laboratory group leader is paramount to the level of support you have for chasing the research questions that really drive you, for career progression opportunities, and your growth and development as a researcher/teacher/mentor yourself.

While there is much to be gained from our mentors at more advanced career stages, it is also important to have a wide network of colleagues at the same career stage (and younger) to form collaborations and connections with. It is often very helpful to share experiences (good and bad) with others who are dealing with similar challenges.

I am so incredibly lucky to have the ongoing and unwavering support of an amazing mentor, lab head and friend, A/Prof Josephine Bowles. As well as providing training to become a meticulous, clear-thinking developmental biologist, Jo continues to be a champion of my career progression and development into a future leader in Australian medical research. She has provided practical help but also emotional support as I have transitioned from a junior-to-senior postdoc, whilst also growing my family with 3 young children along the way.

It be wonderful if we had sufficient research funding and investment for all the bright minds of Australian research to get on with the jobs they have trained so hard to do! We have huge scientific talent and training in Australia, but we need the funding to do what we do best, for the benefit of the entire Australian community.