In 2015, ACRF awarded The University of Queensland Prince Charles Hospital with a $1 million grant for the establishment of ACRF Centre for Lung Cancer Early Detection. The centre focuses on the discovery and development of innovative methods for early stage detection of lung cancer. We caught up for a Q&A with one of the Centre’s Ph.D. students, Brielle Parris, to learn more about what goes on behind-the-scenes:
What led you to become a cancer research scientist?
I originally wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but after my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science, I did a year-long Honours degree at the Centre and was left with too many questions that I needed to answer! I am inspired by the direction that modern cancer research is heading, and its pursuit of combining genomics and technology to diagnose patients earlier and treat patients uniquely according to their genetics. We are currently in a really exciting time in the cancer research sphere, and the advancements are happening at such a rapid rate. My honours year helped me to realise that I didn’t want to just practice medicine – being able to play a role (albeit a relatively small one) in influencing the way that medicine will be conducted in the future excites me much more.
What is your role at the Centre?
I am currently in my second year of my Ph.D., and my thesis will be principally based on the NanoString nCounte. Between my own research, writing grants, assisting with other projects, I am actively involved in the routine processing of patient samples that we receive daily from our kindly consenting patients at The Prince Charles Hospital. All of our research here is based on these samples and would not be possible without them.
Could you give a brief description about the technology that you operate at the Centre?
The NanoString nCounter is an instrument that enables us to directly count the genetic molecules (DNA and RNA) that are contained within the human lung samples that we work with. For example, when we obtain a lung tumour sample from a patient having surgery, I am able to isolate the DNA, attach molecular tags with unique fluorescent spots and count the molecules that we are interested in. This technology can aid our investigation into a variety of nucleic acids within many different patient samples, including lung tumour, blood and sputum (the stuff you cough up when you’re sick) and can identify patterns that may explain certain patient characteristics and why some people develop lung cancer and others do not.
What does it mean to you, to know that you are working towards ending lung cancer?
I’ve often heard people say that your pursuits in life can be meaningless and futile unless you have a strong ‘why’. My mother was a smoker for the majority of my childhood, so she is a constant reminder of my ‘why’. Working towards reducing the incidence of lung cancer by identifying at-risk individuals and through early detection is incredibly meaningful to me.
What is the goal of this new Centre and how does the technology that ACRF provided help achieve this?
The NanoString platform, kindly provided by ACRF, is enabling us to identify patterns in gene expression within lung tumours that may be associated with different survival outcomes, identify gene mutations that predict which drugs will provide most benefit to patients and look at genetic patterns from the blood of patients at risk of lung cancer.
Why do you think it is important to spread awareness around lung cancer?
The stigma that lung cancer is just a ‘smokers disease’, and the consequent nihilism that is associated with the treatment of lung cancer has certainly been a limitation in the funding and support that we have access to. 25% of patients with lung cancer have never smoked, and this proportion is increasing over time. I think that it’s important for the wider community to understand that lung cancer can affect anyone, not just smokers.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, how will this new Centre help reduce these statistics?
The poor survival outcomes for patients with lung cancer are predominately due to the lack of observable symptoms for early stage lung cancer, meaning that most lung cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage when treatment options are limited. With a focus on early detection, the core of our work at the Centre is the pursuit of identifying new biomarkers that may identify people at risk or with early stage lung cancer, particularly through non-invasive blood testing. Identifying patients with lung cancer in the very early stages increases their chance of cure following surgery to remove their tumour, and the mortality associated with this terrible disease.
The end of 2018 will mark the third year since the grant was awarded to the ACRF Centre for Lung Cancer Early Detection. What have been the greatest moments of the project so far?
Last year I conducted a study looking at over 400 lung cancer samples from patients at the Prince Charles Hospital to test for cancer-causing DNA mutations. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to present this work internationally at the World Conference on Lung Cancer in Yokohama, Japan last year and then again at the Australian Lung Cancer Conference in Sydney this year.I’m currently working on testing small samples obtained during a bronchoscopy procedure using the NanoString to test for important gene mutations that cause lung cancer, some of which predict benefit from drugs which are designed to target the mutation specifically (targeted therapies). I am hoping to validate this technology to the extent that it may be used in clinical mutation testing, which is now an integral component to lung cancer diagnosis.
Read more about the ACRF Centre for Lung Cancer Early Detection.