A FORMER Wodonga student is leading a team of Melbourne researchers whose discovery could stop breast cancer cells turning deadly in the patient’s bones.
Dr Belinda Parker and her team at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s metastasis laboratory have found an immune signal in cells that could help existing treatments contain tumours to the breast and eliminate those that spread to the bone.
The research, done in collaboration with the Monash Institute of Medical Research, found the signal had been switched off in some cases, enabling the cells to hide from the immune system and spread.
Dr Parker, 37, a student at the former Wodonga High School, completed the first year of her medical science degree at La Trobe University’s Albury-Wod- onga campus before moving to Bundoora to complete the degree, honours and a PhD.
She did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore in the US before returning to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in 2003.
Dr Parker is now a research fellow, heading an independent research group within the centre’s metastasis laboratory.
The research has been published in Nature Medicine, ensuring the discovery is acknowledged worldwide.
“Less than 20 per cent of breast cancer patients have a spread of cancer, but that is a lot when one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Dr Parker said.
She said the most likely place for cancer to spread was to the bone.
The discovery meant “we cannot only predict who will have the cancer spread to the bone but use existing therapies to restore the immune signal and stop it.”
“We have discovered a ‘mask’ that allows breast cancer cells to hide and spread to bone,” she said.
Dr Parker said existing interferon therapies were already approved to treat hepatitis, multiple sclerosis and metastatic melanoma.
Trials to test the treatments in breast cancer are still to be held.
Dr Parker hoped researchers could soon determine which patients would benefit most from the treatment and when the treatment should be given, before cancer formed in their bones.
“We hope these therapies will “unmask” the immune signal in breast cancer cells that are roaming the body, rendering the cells open to attack from the immune system,” Dr Parker said.
“If we can stop the first spread to bone, we might prevent metastases to brain, lung and liver.”
Professor Paul Hertzog, from Monash, said it was known that interferon-based therapies could be used to treat infectious diseases such as hepatitis and immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
“Now we have the groundwork to translate this discovery into new diagnostic and treatment strategies for breast cancer patients, something we could not have predicted five years ago,” he said.”
Dr Parker, who has two young children, regularly visits her parents and family in Wodonga.
“I get there at least three to four times a year,” she said.