St George Hospital cancer researchers work to advance benefits for patients through early detection

Blood work: St George Hospital scientists Dr Julia Beretov and researcher Dr Jie Ni are carrying out significant medical studies with the ultimate goal of improving cancer survival rates through early detection. Picture: John Veage
Blood work: St George Hospital scientists Dr Julia Beretov and researcher Dr Jie Ni are carrying out significant medical studies with the ultimate goal of improving cancer survival rates through early detection. Picture: John Veage

Breast cancer patients will have a better chance of fighting the disease thanks to new pathology guidelines funded by the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

The guidelines enable pathologists to identify the patients who have more aggressive forms of breast cancer – meaning they can be classified appropriately and their treatment can be tailored.

From 2019, the World Health Organisation will incorporate these guidelines, which were developed by University of Queensland researchers.

These researchers have been specifially investigating rare but aggressive metaplastic breast carcinomas, and found that the number of different cell types in the tumours had a significant impact on survival. 

In St George region’s backyard, there is also exciting work being done at St George Hospital, where significant projects are gaining momentum.

Cancer researcher Julia Beretov, who also mentors university students from the St George & Sutherland Clinical School, says key discoveries are in progress at a local level – with the aim of taking results ‘labside to bedside’.

Dr Beretov and colleagues including Jie Ni and hospital pathologists, have been actively pursuing the detailed monitoring of the biological mechanisms of breast and prostate cancer.

“We’re currently analysing blood protein elevation, and how this can be used to highlight developing treatments for early detection – before patients even have surgery,” Dr Beretov said.

“We’re at the stage where we are trying to recruit more volunteers.”

St George Hospital pathologist, Associate Professor Ewan Millar, says current research includes analysing how the stages of breast cancer can be identified through protein signatures – early indicators that can reveal insightful information as to whether someone develops the disease.

“Looking at how genes respond to drugs, gives treating doctors valuable information,” he said.

“Ultimately the focus is intervention, and how this is going to change the outcome – that’s the drive of the work we are doing – looking at early diagnosis and also things like diet and body weight.”

But with such scientific studies, comes funding – something that is a ongoing challenge, Associate Professor Millar said.

“It costs thousands of dollars per patient for data collection. You end up doing small projects to see if they are viable, and then try to upscale it,” he said. “We are competing with large organisations like the Garvan Institute.”

St George director of radiation oncology, Associate Professor Peter Graham, says Australia is among those at the forefront of scientific medical research. He says studies carried out locally have positive implications for patients in the community.

“If we can detect tumours early, the cure rate goes up, and that’s why breast cancer survival has improved to more than 90 per cent,” he said.

“By targeting patients who have elevated markers in the body, we can also save money and resources through early detection.” 

Young scientists including Jie Ni, who studied medicine in China, is passionate about being involved in boosting Australia’s knowledge of cancer research. 

“I’m particularly interested in prostate cancer – it’s the most commonly diagnosed in men in Australia,” Dr Ni said. “By trying to find gene biomarkers at the time of diagnosis, we can tell clinicians of those patients who are low or high risk.”

Using cutting-edge techniques like molecular pathology, researchers Australia-wide are working to predict which patients will also respond better to chemotherapy, and are developing targeting treatments for different types of cancer.

Professor Sandra O’Toole, a National Breast Cancer-funded researcher, says more targeted studies will give patients a better chance of survival. 

“Research has already made a huge impact on breast cancer outcomes,” she said. “A woman diagnosed early with breast cancer has a 91 per cent chance of being alive in five years – a huge improvement over the past two decades, and it is thanks to a better understanding of breast cancer biology through research.”

Medical innovations: Technolgy such as those being developed at ANSTO, have the potential to reduce side effects of radiation treatment.

Medical innovations: Technolgy such as those being developed at ANSTO, have the potential to reduce side effects of radiation treatment.

At the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), improvements in radiation therapy to treat cancer are also advancing.

Scientists have been working on an initiative that could substantially boost treatment.

The world-first study reveals that the newly-developed microbeam radiation therapy (MRT) could safely deliver radiation doses up to 20 times higher than is currently standard.

Unlike conventional radiation therapy, which irradiates an entire area, killing both the tumour and damaging healthy cells, MRT is delivered in wafer-thin parallel beams of radiation.

It showed in animal trials that healthy cells tolerated treatment, wherease tumours lost their structure and died.

It hoped that the study, which was conducted using the synchrotron’s imaging and medical beamline, could put patients on the path of needing only a single treatment of radiotherapy.

The first trials are likely to involve patients with recurring brain, head and neck cancers. It has the potential to be less intrusive, and avoid the side effects that come with radiation treatment. 

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