HEALTH

Meet The Sydney Researcher With An Unconventional Take On Breast Cancer

Alex Swarbrick was a recipient of Cancer Council NSW's 2017 Research Awards.

01/03/2017 4:31 PM AEDT | Updated 03/03/2017 11:09 AM AEDT

In 2016, an estimated 16,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare expects it to be the most common type of cancer diagnosed in females this year.

For some of these women, conventional methods of treatment will continue to fail them.

Associate Professor Alex Swarbick, a molecular biologist from Sydney, is one of many researchers who are exploring new ways to provide some hope for these women.

"Breast cancer, like every other cancer, is a diverse disease type. Even though they emerge in the breast, they can have very different molecular bases," Swarbrick, a Senior Research Fellow at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, told The Huffington Post Australia.

We're all about finding new therapies for patients who are less likely to benefit from the treatments we already have.

"Some breast cancer types are well managed now thanks to drugs such as Tamoxifen and Herceptin. But for some women, these drugs are of no use. They don't respond to them and they're left in a position where surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are all they have.

"These women have a poor prognosis, are relatively young and often recur quite early after diagnosis. They are a huge challenge."

Swarbrick and his team are currently exploring whether tiny molecules called micro-RNAs can be targeted to treat these women (more on those little guys later).

He was awarded one of 15 grants by Cancer Council NSW at the organisation's 2017 Research Awards on Wednesday night -- a celebration of the new ways scientists are pioneering cancer treatments.

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Meet Professor Swarbrick.

Swarbrick's career began modestly with a basic science degree at university, before he went on to complete a PhD in molecular biology.

I have always had an interest in breast cancer -- it is a hugely impactful disease in the community. Everyone has been touched by it in one way or another.

"This was at a time where molecular biology was exploding with new kinds of tools and technologies and it quickly became clear that these were going to revolutionise the way we thought about cancer," Swarbrick said.

Within the last decade, researchers and molecular scientists began pioneering personalised medicine that moved away from finding a "magic bullet" solution to cancer.

"We started acknowledging that every cancer is different and how understanding these differences could help us to individualise treatment for each patient and their cancer," Swarbrick said.

"When we do that, however, we realise that there is this whole chunk of patients left over whom none of our existing drugs are going to help. What can we do for them?

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You're looking at a highly magnified breast cancer.

Enter micro RNA molecules.

Swarbrick and his team have taken a somewhat unconventional approach to inhibit tumour growth by surveying a small, non-coding molecule called a 'micro RNA'.

"These are enigmatic genes that function in our cells. They have normal functions but we know that they go into a state of array in cancer cells," Swarbrick said.

According to Swarbrick, little work has been done into whether micro RNAs themselves can be a drug target.

People sometimes use an electrical analogy to explain micro RNAs. They are almost like a capacitor in an electrical circuit that modifies other signals.

"Micro RNAs do not rampantly drive cell division and growth of the cancer cell like a typical gene -- they modify the activity of many genes in a cell," Swarbrick said.

Who can this new therapy help?

This unconventional approach to therapy would come into play for already diagnosed patients, Swarbrick says.

"This would be of use down the line for women who have either failed on conventional therapy or who we think are likely to fail. At that point, we would consider using something novel like this," Swarbrick said.

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Fifteen grant recipients were celebrated on Wednesday night, pictured with Cancer Council CEO Jeff Mitchell.

Where to next?

With due recognition from Cancer Council NSW, Professor Swarbrick's research has great clinical potential.

After surveying 2,000 existing micro RNAs, the team have boiled the pool down to three that have particularly potent anti-cancer activity. The grant will allow Swarbrick's team to hone in on these molecules.

"There are some exciting things happening in this space. A clinical trial at the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse has recently tested a micro RNA therapy treating lung-based cancer. They had patients who responded remarkably well to this treatment," Swarbrick said.

"Breast cancer research specifically is historically one of the strengths of the Australian research community. As a group we have made some important discoveries ... While we are still very much in the lab with this, there is a clear path as to how we can take this into clinical testing."

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