Esteemed medical researcher, Professor Minoti Apte OAM, has been named the 2015 Premier’s Woman of the year. We chat to her about her clinical research, medical background and community work. Sabrina Muysken and Ninah Kopel report.

In continuation of Australia’s celebration of International Women’s Day, the 2015 Premier’s Woman of the Year has deservingly been awarded to Professor Minoti Apte OAM. A principal researcher in the field of pancreatic cancers, Professor Minoti is currently leading pre-clinical studies that aim to create a new combination therapy to improve the treatment of this unruly disease.

When asked on the fundamentals of her research in layman’s terms, her response oozes with her deep passion for scientific research and philanthropic nature.

The pancreas is a very, very important organ in our bodies because it helps us to digest our food as well as control blood sugar levels . . . In terms of research, there are two major diseases of this gland that are important from the point of view of the healthcare costs that they can put upon the health system: One is pancreatitis and the other, of course, is pancreatic cancer”.

Professor Minoti and her team dedicate their research to these two areas where they essentially are committed to developing effective therapies for each disease. Unlike her predecessors in this specific field, her research has made incredible progressions towards their goal. Professor Minoti was commended as the first in the world to successfully isolate a cell devoted to producing scar tissue.

Scar tissue basically prevents normal functioning. What we thinking is happening is that when these cells become activated, they turn against the body, so to speak, and start putting down too much scar tissue which in turn effects pancreatic function”.

By looking at research in a new way, rather than just concentrating on the former pathways that have been focused on for many years in the past, Professor Minoti has been able to develop new forms of treatment that are proving to be increasingly successful. For pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, her team’s research primarily focuses on interrupting the interaction between these scar tissue sells and cancer cells.

All along we have been looking at how to kill the cancer cells ourselves, yet we are not making much of a headway in terms of improving the outcome of patients with pancreatic cancer. This means that something else is required, and we think that what is required is that you have to target the cells around the cancer, that are helping it grow and spread”.

Alongside her impressive career success, she is also an active community member within the Marathi Association of Sydney. An organisation that serves Sydney’s significant Indian population, Professor Minoti runs multiple cultural and educational programs with younger generations.

With accolades that extend far beyond her PHD and educational achievements – in 2014 she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for her service to medical research, tertiary education and the Indian Community – it is no wonder Professor Minoti has become the ultimate symbol of female triumph.

When commended on her impressive accomplishments, Professor Minoti humbly recognises the team around her and the group effort involved in pancreatic research.

We don’t work towards an award. We work because we love what we do. The ultimate for us in medical research is to make a difference in patient’s lives. That would be the ultimate prize”.

Acknowledged by the Premier of NSW, Mike Baird MP, as “a highly respected researched and member of the community,” who inspires other women to follow in her footsteps. Professor Minoti still fears we haven’t achieved total gender equality.

That is the goal, as women we should be striving towards . . . I think we are on our way but there are still challenges. We still lose some of our young talented academic women during the transition to motherhood. We still have a challenge to be able to bring them back and give them enough flexibility and support so they can keep working . . . I look forward to the day where we have a ‘Person of the Year Award’ rather than a ‘Women of the Year Award”.