‘Triumph of Human Spirit’: Ground-breaking cancer research lab named after Melanie Swan

Young mother and beloved wife Melanie Swan was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After initial remission, the cancer metastasised and she passed away on 1 October 2016, five years since the diagnosis.

“But she did not lose her battle—she won,” said Scott Chamberlain, her husband. “For her’s was not a story of cancer, but of the triumph of the human spirit. The disease devoured her flesh, but she never let it define her. And it never broke her.”

On Friday 5 April 2019, the Melanie Swan Memorial Translational Centre will be officially opened at the University of Canberra in honour of the young woman who—in searching for the latest research—found an eternal friend and champion in Professor Sudha Rao, Head Researcher at the University of Canberra.

“Shortly before Mel died I said to her, ‘You were here for a reason, because without you I would not have had the same momentum. I now have a purpose to succeed’,” said Professor Rao. “It’s because of her that we are here—we won’t let her down.”

The ground-breaking cancer research facility lead by Professor Rao and her team focuses on three key areas: metastatic cancer, improved patient care and combating natural resistance.

The Melanie Swan Memorial Translational Centre brings together unique leading technology with a one-of-a-kind suite of equipment from leading companies from across the world – such as a first-generation digital pathology machine that can detect how aggressive a cancer is, in real time.

“Some of these global companies have partnered with us—some equipment has been purchased with fundraising—so that we have early access to the machinery, algorithms and computers for testing.”

In a world first, UC researchers have been able to peel apart cancer stem cells and identify the key proteins that cause the cells to tick.

This has allowed the development of a new treatment approach, to block the cancer stem cells and eliminate both the cancerous mass, and the cancer stem cells themselves.

“This revolutionary approach could stop cancer in its tracks,” said Professor Rao. “We are currently at the stage of human trials for metastatic breast cancer, but it could be applicable to other aggressive cancers.”

An important part of the work that this lab performs is a clinical trial on treatment for metastatic breast cancer run by EpiAxis Therapeutics. Melanie Swan was instrumental in its initiation.

A research blood test has also been successfully developed to determine if cancer has metastasised. The simple blood test can monitor if the cancer has spread, doing away with the need for sporadic invasive tissue samples.

“We could not do this in isolation, we are doing it with the oncologists,” said Professor Rao. “Another aspect of this treatment is the development of another research blood test which can help oncologists determine individual treatment for each patient, based on this information. It is all about early intervention and personalised treatment.”

“We’re giving oncologists multiple layers of information to help specific patients, in a context where time is always of the essence.”

Another facet of the research is the development of a test which can determine whether a patient will respond to immunotherapy, which allows the person’s own immune system to actually kill the cancer.

“The reason it is not used more widely—only on a handful of cancers at the moment—is that it’s very expensive, and they don’t know who it is going to work for or not,” said Professor Rao.

“Our research tests will allow us to predict who will respond and who won’t, and to track that success as well.”

Metastatic breast cancer is currently incurable, and 74 per cent of women with metastatic breast cancer will die within five years of diagnosis.

The combination of these multiple approaches to provide evidence-based, real-time diagnostics for oncologists and cancer patients could revolutionise the treatment of cancer in Australia and the world.

But—as the fundraising efforts that continue in Mel’s memory show—the research needs more funding to save as many people as possible. With an ambitious target of $10 million, every dollar helps.

Visit www.canberra.edu.au/cancer-research to donate via our secure giving platform or call (02) 6201 2291.

WHAT: The Melanie Swan Memorial Translational Centre official opening

WHEN: Friday, 5 April at 9am

WHERE: University of Canberra, Building 3, Level D, Room 31


  • Professor Deep Saini, UC Vice-Chancellor and President
  • Meegan Fitzharris MLA, ACT Minister for Health & Wellbeing,Higher Education, Medical and Health Research, Transport and Vocational Education and Skills.
  • Professor Sudha Rao, UC Head Researcher, Melanie Swan Memorial Translational Centre
  • Scott Chamberlain, Melanie’s husband.
  • Melanie’s daughters, Emma and Sophie, will be cutting the ribbon.

/Public Release. View in full here.