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Dr Ilaria Pagani from SAHMRI is an Early Career Researcher funded through Cancer Council’s Beat Cancer Project and has a very special connection to the Brighton Surf Club. The Adelaide-based cancer researcher is hoping to find the secret to why treatment works for some, not others—with the help of a very special surf lifesaving mate.

For surf lifesavers, helping people in need comes naturally, but for a special Brighton Lifesaving Club duo the dedication extends beyond the beach as they strive to achieve a cancer free future.

Cancer researcher and keen rower Ilaria first met long-time surf lifesaver and chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) survivor Kevin Watkins when she showed up for a “come and try” session, after arriving from Italy to work at SAHMRI.

Several years on, she and the Surf Lifesaving South Australia president are firm friends, driven to find a cure for blood cancer – her in the lab, him as a patient advocate.

Dr Pagani, who was awarded a Cancer Council Beat Cancer Project Fellowship in 2020, said input from patients and their families was critical in shaping new research.

“It is important when we are working on projects in the lab to have contributions from patients or family members to ensure the work we do has real outcomes when it comes to improving treatment,” she said.

Dr Pagani said there were more than 6,000 CML patients in Australia now dependent on lifelong therapy to control the disease.

“CML is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow … in the 1980s (tyrosine kinase inhibitor) therapy revolutionised the outcome for patients, increasing survival from about 20 per cent to more than 80,” she said.

“However, considerable challenges remain impairing quality of life (such as taking lifelong medication) and a risk of serious chronic side effects, including damage to kidney, lung and heart function and substantial drug acquisition costs.

“We still do not know why half of the patients with exceptional responses to tyrosine kinase inhibitors relapse after ceasing therapy.”

Through support from the South Australian community, Dr Pagani hopes to develop a model of prediction, currently not available in clinical practice, to identify patients who could safely be taken off the treatment.

“About 25 per cent of CML patients could interrupt their therapy achieving a long-term remission without treatment,” she said.

“Understanding the biological factors beyond treatment-free remission she could also develop new targeted therapies specific for high-risk patients.”

“Treatment like this simply isn’t possible without support from Cancer Council SA, and people like you—thank you so much!

Incredible researchers like Ilaria simply couldn’t do the work they do without support from Cancer Council SA. All the money raised through this years Marilyn Jetty Swim will fund researchers like Ilaria today, tomorrow and for years to come.

For more information on the Marilyn Jetty Swim and donate visit

For more information on Cancer Council SA funded research visit our website here