New approaches to breast cancer

30 April 2015, Cancer

Cancer research at the Malaghan Institute operates on several fronts with many intersecting approaches seeking breakthroughs and moving us closer to new treatments or cures thanks to the committed support we receive. 

PhD student Connie Gilfillan is investigating Doxorubicin - a chemotherapy which has been used in the treatment of breast cancer for over 30 years - and investigating the role of dendritic cells in tumours.

“In 1984 Doxorubicin was approved, and while it’s an effective treatment, it shares the fate of many cancer drugs; tumours become resistant to them.  I wanted to find out whether the treatment leaves carcinoma cells more immune suppressive after ‘chemo’, or less able to respond to the immune system.”

Immunotherapy hopes to unlock the body’s own fight against cancer; but because cancer cells have incredible dexterity in eluding or hiding from the immune system, they are usually not detected and destroyed.  If they are even less likely to be targeted after ‘chemo’ we need to find out additional ways to wake up the immune system.

“Dendritic cells, DCs, are the communicators of the immune system.  They are a kind of first alert cell which notices something amiss and then travels back to the lymph nodes to get specialist cells to help. There are many ways that I am testing and probing their role.  For example if I take them out of the system completely what happens? Or, if a tumour is immune suppressant does the presence of DCs make things better or worse?” says Connie. “While there is genuine excitement about what we are learning about the various immune cells, there are easily over a hundred to investigate and every small thing discovered adds to the big picture. I look at it like a family tree; the B Cells, the T cells and DCs are at the head of the family but they have a whole family of cells under each, branching out in complexity.  I am only looking at one cell and that may occupy me for three years! It is an amazing area of research and the Malaghan Institute is an incredibly stimulating place to be.”

Connie is one and a half years into her PhD under supervisors Professor Franca Ronchese, Dr Melanie McConnell (VUW), and Professor Brett Delahunt (Otago).