Imagine a cancer researcher, and chances are, you won’t envision an adrenaline-fuelled surfer, motorcyclist, and mother of two.  Dr. Samantha Oakes is the exceptional researcher at the helm of some of the most innovative cancer research projects:  understanding cancer's "death-switch".

Photo: Jacqueline Llanos /

Her work at the Garvan Institute is helping to solve some of cancer’s most complex puzzles, with a little help from the cutting-edge DreamLab app.

This is her story.

Experiencing her brother’s cancer scare as a six-year-old forged an early motivation for Dr. Oakes to go into research – a passion that is now nourished within the walls of the Garvan Institute and The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, a combined facility which enables both cancer treatment and research (the two are usually separated), creating an innovative environment for the translation of experimental treatments and ideas.

Each morning, Dr Oakes gets in the lift alongside patients seeking treatment – with perhaps the same kind of cancer cells that she sees through the microscope in her labs, just a few floors below. Her family history, along with this daily connection with patients, provides a regular reminder of the power of her work – every single day.

Understanding cancer

“Cancer is a disease of our normal cells. Every cell in our body has to divide to replace old and dying tissues” explains Dr. Oakes. Every time a cell divides, it has to replicate three billion little units. “As you can imagine, mistakes are often made during cell division. Often these mistakes aren’t disease causing, and contribute to making us who we are. But some of these mistakes can cause cancer.”

Normally, when cells divide with mistakes, they either self-destruct or signal to the immune system to remove them.

“Every cell has a life and death switch. If there are too many mistakes, the switch turns on and the cell is removed from the body.”

However, cancer somehow turns that switch off, allowing dysfunctional cells to multiply, form tumors, and spread throughout the body. “We’re good at primary surgery which removes the first tumour. But once the cancer starts to spread, it can be extremely hard to treat.”

Dr. Oakes’ research focuses on two projects. The first is uncovering how new therapeutic drugs can be used to turn on the life and death switch, to stop the body spreading damaged cancerous cells throughout the body. If a tumour can be kept localised, it can be more easily removed.

The second – a 15-year project – is trying to uncover the process by which cancer cells shut down the body’s immune system.

Dr Oakes’ research seeks to understand how we can “trick cancer cells into thinking they’re sick, making them send out ‘come kill me’ signals to the immune system. When combined with immunotherapy, which removes the brakes from the immune system, it helps remove the cancerous cells from the body.

Conducting this kind of research requires the processing of large amounts of data to compare genomic information, which is where the free smartphone app DreamLab comes in.

“(It) gives us free and dedicated access to a supercomputer to help solve the riddles of cancer.” By taking the load off the Institute’s limited computer resources, it also frees up more time for previously unattainable experiments.

Changing the game

Taking her life experiences into account, Dr. Oakes’ determination makes her an ideal candidate to work on such a game-changing project “I don’t have a backup plan… All I want to do is research that saves lives.” The end goal is to place cancer in the realm of a survivable disease for the diagnosis to no longer be feared, because there are treatments that are known to be effective in enabling patients to go on to live long, happy and healthy lives. Her work at Garvan and the supporting role of the DreamLab app are just small pieces of this much larger puzzle.

Like a great deal of medical research, cancer research can be a long process that is often without ‘wins’. Sometimes, the gap between rewarding milestones spans months, years, and even decades. But spending time at the Garvan Institute, and with Dr. Oakes gives us renewed hope that improved treatments for cancer are on the horizon – we just need to wade through a sea of data to get there.

Dr Oakes remains as persistently patient in her lab as she does in the surf:  carefully watching each wave, ready to jump on her board when the time is right.

With help from the DreamLab app, hopefully the right wave will come sooner.

Download DreamLab on the App Store and Google play now, and you can join in helping solve cancer – while you sleep.

Terms and conditions

1: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.  More Terms and Conditions, here.

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Alyssa Jones

Alyssa Jones