Stem Cells and Cancer

About us

Our work spans both molecular and patient biology to address the twin issues of cancer and stem cells in people. Our interdisciplinary and complementary research programme focusses on cancer stem cell biology and strongly integrates with other UNSW groups working on tumour initiation, the microenvironment and inflammation, stem cell biology, drug discovery, and early clinical trials. Our previous work contributed significantly to an improved understanding of cancer stem cell biology and function, and set the stage for our recent efforts to comprehensively characterise cancer stem cells and their microenvironment as the basis for developing more effecitve treatment strategies. 

For these studies we have developed an array of innovative methods enabling us to isolate, track and characterise rare human CSC, embedded in a comprehensive human tumour microenvironment. Our innovative CatchCSCTM platform allows for the isolation of viable cancer stem cells from the blood and their subsequent analysis in the drug response screening platform ScanCSCTM. We are using advanced genetic and pharmacological tools to identify and validate novel targets and their functions in CSC. Studies are complemented by novel genetically engineered mouse models.

Our interest in using novel technologies to foster diagnosis and treatment of patients with cancer has lead to collaborations with bioengineers (e.g. nanoparticles, microfluidics, bioreactors, lab-on-a-chip) and clinicians alike. Eventually our work will provide the basis for developing more effective multimodal treatment strategies, jointly targeting cancer stem cells, their respective differentiated progenies and the immunosuppressive and CSC-promoting tumour microenvironment.
Interested in joining? We are currently looking for 

Research Officer – Job ID 494884
PostDoc – please inquire
Senior PostDoc – please inquire
PhD students – please check available projects below
Honour students – Search here for suitable projects. 


Translational Research Programme

The main objective of our research programme is to improve the still dismal outcome of pancreatic cancer by systematically developing targeted precision medicine strategies that also eliminate highly tumourigenic and metastatic cancer stem cells (CSC). This is supported by our proof-of-concept studies showing that genetic ablation of CSC prevents disease relapse.

Our work builds on the hypothesis that comprehensive functional interrogation of CSC, including those derived from advanced disease patients, results in the identification of novel CSC targets with broad applicability. Targets cover a wide spectrum ranging from the distinct CSC metabolism, their unique immune prevelege, and specific cancer stemness signaling. Inhibition of these newly defined pathways/schemes will reduce CSC content and thus prevent tumour relapse during/following treatment. This will be achieved in interconnected and interdisciplinary projects: 

  1. Provide proof-of-concept and mechanism-of-action for nove targets identified in our in vivo screens
  2. Expand screens by systematically interrogating metastatic CSC derived from advanced patients
  3. Multiplexing & development of precision medicine strategies
  4. Prospective validation in novel patient-derived xenograft models and genetically modified mouse models
  5. Translation into biomarker-driven clinical trials to improve the outcome for cancer patients with currently unmet medical need. 


Selection of Key Publications (see PubMed for full list)

  1. Hermann, P. al. Cell Stem Cell 1, 313-23, (2007).
  2. Lonardo, al. Cell Stem Cell 9, 433-446, (2011).
  3. Lonardo, E., et al. Cell Cycle 11, 1282-1290, (2012).
  4. Sainz Jr., B., et al. Cancer Cell 23, 431-3, (2013).
  5. Miranda, al. Nat Methods 11, 1161-1169, (2014).
  6. Sainz Jr., B. et al. Cancer Res 74, 7309-7320, (2014).
  7. Clausell-Tormos, J. et al. J Nanomed Nanotechnol 5, 1000191-8, (2014).
  8. Hermann, P.C. et al. Gastroenterogy 147, 1119-1133, (2014).
  9. Hernández-Porras, I. et al. Natl Acad Sci U S A. 111(46):16395-400, (2014)
  10. Cioffi, M. et al. Gut 64, 1936-1948, (2015).
  11. Raj, D., et al. Stem Cells 33, 2893-902, (2015).
  12. Sainz Jr., B. et al. Gut 64(12):1921-35, (2015).
  13. Cioffi, M. et al. Clin Cancer Res 21, 2325-37, (2015).
  14. Sancho, P. et al.  Cell Metab 22, 590-605, (2015).
  15. Cioffi, M. et al.  Cell Rep 12(10):1594-605. (2015).
  16. Salanti, A. et al.  Cancer Cell 28, 500-514, (2015).
  17. Zagorac, S. et al.  Cancer Res76(15):4546-58, (2016).
  18. Sancho, P. et al. Br J Cancer 114(12):1305-12, (2016)
  19. Dumartin, L. et al. Oncogene 36(22): 3094-103 (2017).
  20. Ottaviani, S. et al. Nat Commun 10;9(1):1845 (2018).
  21. Raj, D. et al. Gut Epub ahead of print (2018).
  22. Agerbaek, M.O. et al. Nat Commun 16;9(1):3279 (2018).


Resources & Tools

Interested in joining?

Research Officer – Job ID 494885

PostDoc – please inquire

Senior PostDoc – please inquire

Master / Honour students – Search here for suitable projects, but also check the list below

PhD student fellowships, starting in 2nd term 2019:

Overview: We are developing novel approaches to efficiently eliminate cancer stem cells as the root of the tumour, and bear the potential to finally improve long-term outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer, one of the most devastating human cancers. Determining how cancer stem cells actually regulate self-renewal and in vivo tumourigenesis will significantly advance our understanding of cancer stem cell biology. This represents an essential step towards the development of strategies for eliminating cancer stem cells as a prerequisite for improving long-term therapeutic response in pancreatic cancer patients. 

Currently available projects in our group are related to the following areas:

• Dissecting the heterogeneity of (circulating) cancer stem cells using single cell technologies;
• Identification and validation of novel cancer stem cell targets using functional genomics (siRNA, CRISPR/Cas9);
• Epigenetically defined stemness signalling network
• Cancer and stroma cell metabolism
• Contributions of the tumour microenvironment to promote stemness
• Development of novel cell-based immunotherapies (CAR-T) against cancer (stem) cells

If you find any of the above topics of interest to you, please send me an email ( making a strong case why you are an excellent candidate for this, considering your area of expertise, skill sets, soft skills etc. 

Once we have agreed that you are indeed the right candidate for your favourite project, then you can apply via this link: 

Grants & Funding

Through Strategic Hires and Recention Pathways (SHARP), supporting strategic recruitment in carefully selected areas of research, UNSW has invested signficant funds to bring Prof Heeschen and a team of highly successful resaerch to UNSW Sydney. 

We are currently recruiting at all levels and looking for candidates with strong interest in cancer (stem) cell biology and studying their epigenetic and metabolic regulation, respectively. We are particularly interested in candidates with experience in in vivo cancer models, flow cytometry, cell sorting, confocal microscopy and/or primary cell culture.


We are constantly looking for highly motivated and dedicated students.