Mater patients will play a key role in helping discover why some women with breast cancer develop deadly metastases as a new Mater Research study gets underway in Brisbane.
While better screening and treatments have increased the five-year survival rate for Australian breast cancer patients to 92 per cent, nearly 1700 patients diagnosed in 2022 will still die prematurely from the disease before 2028.
Almost half of those cases are women with triple-negative breast cancer, and Mater Researcher Dr Jodi Saunus is seeking to discover the changes in tumour cells that cause the resistance to treatment.
Dr Saunus said these advances were underpinned by global efforts in discovery and clinical research, much of which was funded through philanthropy.
She has launched a study in partnership with the Mater Private Breast Cancer Clinic that will collect and analyse DNA isolated from tumour cells both before and after chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapy is a mainstay in breast cancer treatment, but it’s still not possible to reliably predict how a patient will respond, so some patients endure this toxic treatment but relapse anyway,” Dr Saunus said.
“My project aims to find new clues that explain the molecular basis for different responses, which in turn would help guide clinical and life decisions at the point of diagnosis.
“Those who wouldn’t respond could then be offered targeted immunotherapy or other emerging treatments earlier, so they don’t waste valuable time and can be spared unwarranted side-effects.
“On the flip side, it will give those women who are genetically geared towards responding well to chemo some reassurance that they are on the best course for them.”
Mater Private Hospital patient Bec Leslie was diagnosed with breast cancer at 47 years of age and underwent five months of chemotherapy before going into remission five years ago.
“My diagnosis and months of treatment were scary, not knowing if my chemotherapy would work,” Mrs Leslie, from Kenmore, said.
Mrs Leslie, a nurse at Mater Hospital Brisbane, said the research was a huge leap forward for triple negative breast cancer patients like herself.
“While my doctors and nurses were so supportive and my care was amazing, it’s hard to shake that fear that you’ll be one of the patients who don’t respond to chemotherapy,” she said.
“A diagnostic test would have given us a little bit more peace of mind during a very traumatic and frightening time.”
Dr Saunus said the research was unlike anything else being undertaken because the team was investigating which parts of tumour DNA were active versus inactive, allowing patterns that correlate with a patient’s response to chemotherapy to be identified.
“We believe identifying these patterns could also one day lead to the development of therapies that target those DNA sequences to make the refractory tumours more responsive to chemotherapy,” she said.
“This research is vital to improving survival rates. When patients relapse after first-line therapy, a cure is very unlikely, and any subsequent treatment is usually palliative with patients surviving 13 months on average.”
The study has initially been funded through a Mater Research Outstanding Women’s Grant and will involve an international collaboration with King’s College London.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women, and the second most common cause of cancer death, after lung cancer.
Between 1989–1993 and 2014–2018, the five-year relative survival for breast cancer improved from 77 per cent to 92 per cent. *
*Australian institute of health & welfare | Cancer data in Australia