CARLTON’S DR. EWA MICHALAK LEADING BREAST CANCER RESEARCH

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By Caitlin McArthur

 

Carlton local Dr. Ewa Michalak has been awarded a prestigious fellowship to support her continuing research into breast cancer stem cells.

 

The grant from the National Breast Cancer Foundation is a $680,000 investment into Dr. Michalak’s work, enabling her to progress her research into understanding how normal and cancerous cells develop in the breast.

 

A senior postdoctoral fellow working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Dr. Michalak says she was extremely surprised to be selected as the funding recipient.

 

“It’s a highly competitive award, and I was extremely nervous. Another colleague of mine was nominated and I thought he was a shoe in,” Dr. Michalak said.

 

My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and died the day before her 30th birthday while I was overseas, so that’s been kind of a personal motivator for me,”

 

The Institute, which is affiliated with The Royal Melbourne Hospital, is the oldest research institution in Australia, with 2015 marking its centenary year.

 

Dr. Michalak moved from Perth in 2003 to complete her PhD at the Institute, but said her focus at the time and her actual area of expertise is epigenetics – the study of changes in gene activity not caused by changes to DNA – not breast cancer.

 

After leaving to travel overseas, Michalak returned to the Institute just two years ago with a new focus.

 

“My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and died the day before her 30th birthday while I was overseas, so that’s been kind of a personal motivator for me,” she said.

 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the developed world, with more than one million women diagnosed each year.”

 

There has been substantial progress in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment over the past 20 years, but efforts to improve treatment options have been constrained by a lack of understanding in how breast cancer initiates and spreads around the body.

 

Dr. Michalak said her research aims to bridge that gap.

 

“My research seeks to understand how cells behave in a healthy mammary gland. This will give us clues to identify what is suspicious, and therefore needing further investigation, in the unhealthy or tumorigenic setting,”

 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the developed world, with more than one million women diagnosed each year.

 

Dr Ewa Michalak

Dr Ewa Michalak

 

Of these women, one in three will have tumours that become resistant to standard treatment. With this, comes the increased chance the cancer will relapse and spread to other organs.

 

“Tumour resistance to treatment is thought to be due to the existence of a small population of cells, which may initiate and maintain the tumour,” Dr. Michalak said.

 

“These drug-resistant cells are termed breast cancer stem cells, and may originate from normal breast stem cells,” she said.

 

The answer to why these cells form may lie in a group of proteins known as epigenetic modifiers.

 

By studying these proteins Dr. Michalak hopes she will be able to determine how healthy breast stem cells are maintained, how normal maintenance goes awry, and if deleting or inhibiting these cells impacts on the cancer’s ability to spread.

 

The knowledge gained from Dr. Michalak’s study has the potential to impact many aspects of the breast cancer research.

 

Long-term outcomes include earlier detection of tumours, improved prognostic tools and better therapies for patients with advanced and metastatic disease.

 

Dr. Michalak said the potential for her work to help patients is a driving factor in her research.

 

“I think if you’re going to do something in science you should do something that’s going to go towards finding better outcomes and treatments for patients,” she said.

 

 

Caitlin is in her third and final year of a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University. She enjoys covering everything from local news and politics to culture and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @CaitlinMcArthu1.

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