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New breakthroughs in breast cancer research

Leading scientists from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research share the latest developments.

Breast cancer research is a key focus of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. We chatted to two of Garvan’s leading breast cancer scientists, Dr Samantha Oakes and Dr Christine Chaffer, for the latest in their research.

A potential new therapy

Dr Samantha Oakes leads the Cell Survival Group in Garvan’s Cancer Division. Here she shares some insights on how breast cancer cells survive and spread throughout the body.

What motivates your research?

I’ve always been interested in science. When I was little, a tumour (thankfully benign) was found in my younger brother’s leg. That experience taught me a lot about medical care. From then I realised how important medical research is to advancing medical care and helping improve outcomes for people with cancer.

In layman’s terms, can you describe your current research and findings?

Recently, we uncovered a new way to stop the spread of breast cancer in mice. Excitingly, this could lead to a new combination therapy for breast cancer patients with the anti-cancer drug dasatinib.

What excites you most about this?

At the end of the day, we want to help people with breast cancer, and this potential new therapy could do just that. Importantly, this treatment method could also be applied to other cancers like pancreatic, prostate and lung cancer.

What are the next challenges in your research?

Our work has only been tested in mice and we need to do more research to bring the discoveries to the clinic. Another challenge to us at the moment is funding: the more funding we have, the faster we can achieve our ultimate goal of making advanced cancer a treatable disease.

“My research focuses on ‘cell plasticity’, the ability of cells to change from one type to another – which we think is at the heart of cancer cells’ ability to grow into tumours.”

Understanding cell plasticity

Dr Christine Chaffer is new to Garvan and the recipient of the NELUNE Foundation’s Rebecca Wilson Fellowship in Breast Cancer Research. After living and working in the US and Canada, she has now returned to Australia to continue her important work.

What opportunity does this Fellowship provide you?

I am very grateful to the NELUNE Foundation, and honoured to receive an award celebrating the life of someone as inspiring as Rebecca Wilson. The Fellowship provides financial security to allow me to continue my research for another three years. After seeing the power of philanthropy in North America, it is encouraging to see such support of medical research here in Australia.

What will be the key focus of your research?

My research focuses on something we call ‘cell plasticity’, which is essentially the ability of cells to change from one type to another – a process that we think is at the heart of cancer cells’ ability to grow into tumours and spread around the body. We’ve already demonstrated that by stopping or slowing cancer cells from changing into different types, we can also stop or slow tumours from growing and spreading.

What differences are there between working in research in the US vs. Australia?

I had the chance to work with some brilliant biologists in the US. I learnt a lot about new approaches and techniques. I’m excited to bring this experience to Garvan, and to return home to the outstanding research community here in Australia.

Learn more about the latest cancer research at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

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