Amy Winship was one of five finalists for the Future Science Early Career Research
Award 2018. Read her interview to find out about her career, hopes for the future
and advice to other early career researchers.
Please tell us about your career history to-date
My research expertise is in female reproduction. During my PhD at the Hudson Institute
of Medical Research, Australia, I established an animal model for the life-threatening
pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia. In a separate study, I also demonstrated efficacy
of a treatment for uterine cancer that may preserve fertility. In 2016, I received
a Cancer Council Victoria Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue research on this novel,
fertility-preserving therapeutic strategy for treating uterine cancer and was awarded
a commendation at the Victorian Premier’s Awards for Health and Medical Research.
I have published my research in top reproductive and interdisciplinary journals on
diverse stages of pregnancy, including endometrial preparation for pregnancy, embryo
implantation, decidua formation, placental development and pregnancy complications
including spontaneous, preterm birth and low birth weight. My broad reproductive expertise
therefore makes me uniquely equipped to lead a new project focused on the impacts
of anticancer treatments on the uterus and subsequent pregnancy. This research is
highly relevant to population health in the context of fertility of female cancer
My experience in pregnancy and gynecological cancer research drove my interest in
developing fertility-preserving techniques for women undergoing cancer treatment.
After being recruited to Monash University, Australia, I was awarded an Australian
Government National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellowship (2017–2020).
In order to develop novel fertility-preserving techniques, I have partnered with Dr.
Hutt, a world leader in identifying mechanisms of anti-cancer treatment-induced oocyte
DNA damage in the ovary. We have already published two reviews and two original research
articles in less than 2 years. The combination of my expertise and conception of this
study, together with Dr Hutt’s laboratory, is therefore tailored perfectly to ensure
the success of my current research.
What made you choose a career in your field?
The ability to work as part of a team and contribute to meaningful and impactful science
is what drove me to choose a career in medical research. The ability to think creatively
and create new knowledge through the rigor of a well-designed study are what drives
me to continue my career.
Describe the main highlights of your career so far
The best thing about my research career has been the relationships I have formed with
my mentors and other lab members. These are rewarding relationships that will be long-lasting
and help to drive me forward, not only as a better scientist, but as a better person.
Describe the most difficult challenge you have faced & how you overcame it
My personal challenge in science has been to overcome striving for perfection. Research
science is competitive due to the constant search for funding. Therefore, it is important
to understand that great scientists do not always get the award of grant – that does
not mean that they are not great scientists. Accepting that my best might not always
be good enough to secure a grant or award is part of science. That has been a difficult
learning curve and I have had to grow a much thicker skin in a short timeframe.
How do you feel you have impacted your field?
Healthy pregnancy is essential for a healthy start to life. Complications during pregnancy
can compromise the immediate, and long-term health and well-being of both the mother
and baby. This puts an enormous burden on healthcare systems for years to come. Understanding
the causes and improving the treatment of pregnancy disorders is crucial to guarantee
the best start to life for all babies. The placenta is the lifeline between the mother
and baby and is vital for healthy pregnancy. Abnormal placental development is a leading
cause of pregnancy disorders including pregnancy loss, pre-eclampsia and fetal growth
Placental development, which nourishes a growing baby, and cancer growth and spread
have a striking similarity; placental and tumor cells both grow and replicate rapidly.
They also invade into the womb and if this invasion is not monitored, it can cause
Uterine cancer is the most common gynecological cancer worldwide and the fourth most
common cancer in women, killing approximately 75,000 women worldwide and around 2500
women in Australia annually. Alarmingly, its incidence is rising, particularly in
women of reproductive age. There is no screening test and a lack of curative therapies
for patients with recurrent or aggressive disease, or young women wanting to preserve
During my PhD studies, I identified a single molecule called ‘IL-11’, which causes
abnormal cell growth and invasion in the womb. I have since demonstrated that elevated
levels of this small signalling protein cause both pregnancy complications and uterine
cancer. Excitingly, my studies show that blocking IL-11 can promote healthy pregnancy;
stop uterine cancer growth and spread; and importantly preserve the future fertility
of these women. I highlighted for the first time that abnormal levels of IL-11 cause
serious pregnancy complications including pre-eclampsia. I then developed a new mouse
model of pre-eclampsia. This is significant, as previous models do not exhibit the
full spectrum of disease features, which has hampered therapeutic testing. This model
is now being used by my past research group and others around the world as a preclinical
model to test urgently needed treatments. I also provided evidence for efficacy of
a novel nonchemo-/radio-therapy and non-hormonal treatment for uterine cancer, by
blocking IL-11 proteins of interest. As a result, I am a named investor on a patent
to develop this into a translational therapy.
What are your aims for the future?
My goal is to lead a world-class reproductive research team to improve fertility,
pregnancy outcomes and health for the future. My current research capitalizes and
expands on my expertise in developing mouse models of cancer and reproductive disorders
to identify novel mechanisms of uterine damage after cancer therapy. My overall future
goal is to exploit these targets to develop therapeutics to prevent damage to the
uterus and improve fertility. I will use my primary human cell and tissue culture
experience to drive translational studies in women and position myself as an internationally
competitive researcher in fertility regulation. I have already secured my salary for
the duration of my current research focus and have recruited a PhD student to drive
this research. I was recently awarded competitive seed funding from Monash University
to establish the embryo transfer models in mice, demonstrating my ability to be competitive
for larger external funding applications in the future.
My research is the very first step in uncovering entirely new knowledge about the
exact impacts of anti-cancer treatments on the uterus and its ability to foster a
healthy pregnancy after treatment has ceased. My short-term goal is to gain much needed
knowledge regarding the precise extent of damage that radiotherapy or different chemotherapy
drugs, commonly used to treat young cancer patients, can cause to the womb. Only once
we understand how anti-cancer treatments damages the uterus, will we be able to design
appropriate intervention methods to protect, or restore its normal function. Importantly,
my study will assess each key stage of pregnancy. Because I am using donor embryos
in recipient mice exposed to cancer therapies, I will know for certain that any differences
between the control or treated animals are caused by defects of the uterus, but not
the ovary and eggs. Assessing the impact of cancer therapies on each of the key stages
of successful pregnancy in my animal model will uncover new information regarding
the reasons why cancer survivors are more susceptible to pregnancy complications than
women who have not been exposed.
My medium-term goal, which I strive to achieve soon, will be to test whether our findings
in an animal model are also relevant to women. To do this, I will test our findings
using human uterine tissues samples collected from female cancer survivors undergoing
IVF. This will help me achieve my long-term goal, to substantially impact the clinical
care of young cancer patients and survivors. This includes ensuring that fertility-preservation
counselling becomes standard care for all young patients and that they are aware of
the potential impacts of radiotherapy and chemotherapy on the uterus. My long-term
goal is to use the findings from this study to develop innovative and much-needed
approaches to protect the uterus and fertility in young women being treated for cancer.
What advice do you have for those hoping to win the award in the future?
My advice would be to apply for the award, even if you do not think you’re competitive.
Although I did not win, I did not even think I would be shortlisted after my supervisor
told me she had nominated me. You have to be in it to win it!