Mater believes, as you do, that no one diagnosed with breast cancer should have their life cut short by this disease.
In Australia, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer), and the second most common cause of cancer death.
It is estimated more than 19,866 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2021, and more than 3,100 women died from breast cancer in Australia.
At Mater there is research at every point of the translational pipeline: trying to understand what cancer is and what makes it worse; developing new treatments; making our current treatments better; and ensuring patients get the right treatment first time.
This is a strong advantage of having a research institute embedded in a hospital.
From the bench
Mater Research’s Dr Felicity Davis is trying to define what is normal, and not normal, about cancer. Instead of thinking of cancer as distinct biological process, she is studying it as a ‘broken normal’.
Cancer comprises cells that continue to divide until they take over and compromise some essential function – unless they’re treated.
But there are times in the body when cells undergo that division, and then they stop.
In the breast during pregnancy and breastfeeding, this is exactly what happens. The cells responsible for producing milk proliferate, then breasts grow and a baby is breastfed. Then when the baby is weaned, those cells die and the breast shrinks.
So there is something happening here that in some respects has similarities to cancer, but can be turned off. Dr Davis is trying to define exactly what this process looks like in order to help us understand what makes cancer different, and maybe even find an off switch.
This research sits at one end of the translational pipeline, in the discovery phase.
Creating new tools
Further along the pipeline, research touches current patients. In this space Dr Cameron Snell, Mater’s Director of Pathology, is investigating precision medicine, asking the question; can you get the right treatment for the right patient, first time?
Using archived tissue samples, Dr Snell can look back to the past, track a patient’s journey, and see what outcomes they had. He’s aiming to create new tools through this knowledge to allow Mater’s clinical teams to know more about their patients – and give them the right treatment, first time.
Dr Snell turns patient tissue into explants: tiny slices that are kept alive and can be treated with drugs, allowing clinicians and researchers to better understand how the tumour reacts to specific medicines.
Dr Snell is building a whole suite of tools to help breast cancer patients get the best possible care.
To the bedside
Improving current models of care
At the far end of the translational pipeline Dr Chris Pyke, a Mater surgeon, collaborates with our researchers, asking, for example, what research shows about how much tissue should be taken when a tumour is removed.
Is there a margin of error that leads to better patient outcomes, or are there treatment plans available so patients don’t need to have an operation, and can be spared the long recovery process?
An additional component of breast cancer support also happens at Mater. Chicks in Pink purchase mastectomy bras, wigs, cleaning services for families affected by cancer, and even car parking vouchers for people going through chemo, to make the cancer journey just that little bit easier.