Spotlight on Dr. Emel Rothzerg

Emel Rothzerg

Since its inception in 2012, Sock it to Sarcoma! has had as one of its primary goals the support of research into sarcoma, with a keen commitment to funding pioneering projects that offer hope to those affected by this rare type of cancer. With over $1,500,000 already funnelled into valuable research and scholarships, the organization has played an instrumental role in fostering the next generation of sarcoma researchers. One such esteemed beneficiary of our support is Dr. Emel Rothzerg. A passionate and tenacious researcher, Dr. Rothzerg has made significant strides in the field, notably through her research on the LEPROT gene’s association with osteosarcoma (an abstract can be found here). We recently had the privilege of delving into her inspiring journey, her experiences funded by our charity, and the profound discoveries she’s made that could pave the way for novel treatment strategies. Read on as Dr. Rothzerg shares insights from her recently published paper, highlights from her PhD research, and her aspirations for the future.

SitS!: Can you tell us a bit about your doctoral work and the specific focus of your research?

ER: Focus of my research was/is on osteosarcoma, aiming to identify new biomarkers/prognostic markers for the disease.

SitS!: We understand that our organization played a role in funding your PhD. How did our support contribute to your research journey and overall success?

ER: I always emphasize that the invaluable support from the Sock it to Sarcoma has made this research achievable. Through their provision of PhD scholarship and research grants, we have been able to sustain and advance our research.

SitS!: Sarcoma research is a highly specialized field. What initially sparked your interest in studying sarcomas, and what motivated you to continue your work in this area?

ER: That’s correct, sarcoma, especially osteosarcoma, is growing – very specialised field. During my time as a volunteer at a rural hospital in Sri Lanka, I encountered instances where children were forced to undergo amputations, like the loss of their legs, due to this disease. It is worth noting that there are no biomarkers for detecting osteosarcoma in its early stages and the treatment of osteosarcoma has not been improved nearly four decades.

SitS!: Could you share some of the key findings or breakthroughs from your PhD research that you believe have the potential to make a significant impact in the field of sarcoma research?

ER: We identified several active genes in osteosarcoma cases that affect patient survival which is critical for early detection of cancer, prognostic value, personalised gene therapy, and monitoring treatment response.

SitS!: What are some of the current challenges or gaps in sarcoma research that you hope to address with your ongoing work?

ER: Scientists are still struggling to understand pathophysiology of sarcomas. Therefore, extensive research is required to investigate into the underlying mechanisms of various sarcoma types, particularly those affecting bone.

SitS!: Collaborations and partnerships are crucial in scientific research. Have you been involved in any collaborative projects during your PhD, and do you plan to continue collaborating with other researchers in your new role?

ER: Recognition of our work has paved the way for collaborations with fellow researchers specializing in osteosarcoma from China, England, Vietnam, and Estonia. Notably, a significant collaboration of ours is with the University of Oxford, focused on investigating different subtypes of osteosarcoma. Last year, I spent a month in Oxford-England, collecting patient samples and learning more research techniques. This year, I am set to return for an extended period to engage in a more comprehensive study plan.

SitS!: Is there any message or advice you would like to share with aspiring researchers who are interested in pursuing a career in sarcoma research?

ER: I know this sound would be very cliché but NEVER GIVE UP! There will be always bad days but as Roy T. Bennett said, “It takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow”.

SitS!: What were some of the challenges you faced during your PhD studies, and how did you overcome them?

ER: Doing research is a long-term commitment that requires a high degree of personal motivation which can fluctuate. Like everyone else, I came across some issues during my PhD as well such as unexpected results, experiments not working as planned and limited access to specialised equipment. How to overcome them? Easy! Keep working, do more research and reading, discuss with my supervisors and ask help!

SitS!: In your opinion, what are the most important or groundbreaking developments in sarcoma research currently?

ER: There are over 100 types of sarcomas are known to exist, with a majority falling under the category of rare sarcomas. Research efforts have been focused on rare and hard-to-treat sarcomas that have limited treatment options. Developing therapies for these subtypes is crucial to addressing unmet medical needs. Consequently, directing attention toward these specific sarcoma subtypes is groundbreaking advancements. According to my knowledge there is a lab in Melbourne specialised in rare soft tissue sarcomas and our group collaborating with the University Oxford to investigate rare bone sarcoma subtypes.

SitS!: How do you think your research will contribute to advancing the understanding and treatment of sarcoma?

ER: Genomic characterization of osteosarcoma subtypes is crucial for the development of effective treatments, and it holds great promise for revolutionizing sarcoma care in the future. There are 8 different subtypes of osteosarcoma. Over the last three decades, patient outcomes have not significantly improved and the current therapy techniques for osteosarcoma are highly disappointing. The failure to improve survival rates reflects the lack of novel treatment strategies. Given the urgency of the situation, researchers and clinicians are actively working to develop more effective and less toxic treatments for patients with osteosarcoma. Some of the approaches being explored include immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and combination therapy. However, in order to develop more precise and effective therapies, it is crucial for scientists and clinicians to thoroughly investigate each subtype of osteosarcoma, elucidating their distinct gene expression profiles, mutations, and underlying pathophysiology of the subtypes. Furthermore, currently, there are no biomarkers available for any subtypes of the osteosarcoma that can detect the disease at an early stage and provide accurate monitoring of disease progression. To facilitate the development of new treatments, it is imperative to identify predictive and prognostic markers for each subtype of the osteosarcoma. This is where our research stands. We are working on investigating all the subtypes of osteosarcoma and offering different treatment plan for each of them.

SitS!: Apart from your research work, how do you think your association with our organisation has helped raise awareness about sarcoma and the need for more research funding?

ER: Through various interactions and communications, UWA and SitS! together have been able to provide accurate and accessible information about sarcoma to a wide audience. This helps people understand the nature of the disease, its impact, and the urgency of research efforts. By creating engaging content, including articles, social media posts, and educational materials, I’ve helped to simplify complex scientific concepts related to sarcoma. We’ve been promoting events, and fundraising efforts related to sarcoma research. We have been sharing resources, articles, and research findings that highlight the importance of increased funding for sarcoma research.

SitS!: Can you share any memorable experiences or highlights from your time as a PhD graduate supported by our organisation?

ER: Sarcoma Research Networking Events! These events gather sarcoma researchers, clinicians, patients, and survivors from across Perth to discuss research highlights and socialise. This experience always makes me realize the significance of our work and how strongly bonded our sarcoma community is.

SitS!: Finally, is there anything else you would like to share about your journey, accomplishments, or future plans, or any message you’d like to send to others in the sarcoma research community?

ER: I am particularly excited about the prospect of generating novel knowledge and establishing a new-generation translational paradigm to improve the lives of sarcoma patients in Australia and beyond. My ultimate goal is to achieve zero deaths from osteosarcoma in our lifetime. This ambitious target motivates me to pursue a research career and leave my own “footprint” in the field of sarcoma that benefits humanity.