Close up of researcher working with samples in a lab

Research projects

Flipping the molecular master switches that drive cancer

Professor Ricky Johnstone
Project period
Jan 2024 - Dec 2026
Research Institute
The University of Melbourne
Cancer types
General cancer research
Award amount

Project aim

Professor Johnstone and his team are searching for new ways to switch off the complex web of genes that keep cancer cells surviving and growing.

Hope for the future

Finding out exactly how cancer cells work is vital for understanding what goes wrong in cancer, and how to fix it. We already know that each cancer cell contains thousands of genes, encoded on long strands of DNA, that control how the cell grows. But we don’t yet know exactly how each of these genes work together.

During this project, Professor Johnstone will focus on finding out more about this huge network of genes that help cancer cells survive. He hopes to find brand new combinations of cancer drugs that can switch off the molecules controlling these networks. This vital new information can then be used to develop better and more effective cancer treatments for patients.


Dr Jennifer Devlin in a science lab, pipetting

Meet the scientists

Professor Johnstone is a fundamental scientist who has dedicated the last 30 years of his professional life to cancer research. Prof Johnstone is a father of three children and keen runner, cyclist and swimmer.

Dr Jennifer Devlin leads a small team in Professor Johnstone’s lab. In her spare time Dr Devlin likes to go hiking and explore the bushland around Melbourne.

The science

Genes are a set of molecular instructions that help to regulate how all cells survive and grow. Each gene needs to be switched on at off at different times. This activity is tightly controlled by vast coordinated networks, and regulated by molecular ‘master switches’.

But we don’t yet know exactly how these important master switches are controlled in cancer cells, and Professor Johnstone and his team are using this project to improve our understanding. As part of this work, they will use an innovative new technique to screen a large number of drugs. They hope to find new combinations that can work together to flip the master switches off and stop cancer.

Importantly, the researchers will also investigate which combinations of drugs do not work together. This will help to illuminate in even more detail exactly how gene networks are connected in cancer.

Their work will not only help us to understand more about how cancer works and how it can be controlled, but it could also help us find possible new ways to target the disease.

Headshot of Ricky Johnstone Professor Ricky Johnstone
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