24 October 2018
Dr Jean Winter from the University of Adelaide is just one of the researchers currently funded through Cancer Council’s Beat Cancer Project. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr Winter is sharing how, through the generous donations of Cancer Council’s community supporters, she is working towards improving treatment outcomes for the more than 1,400 South Australian women diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
Cancer impacts almost everyone in some way. The reality is, although there have been several advances in cancer research, there is still a lot we don’t know about the disease and how best to fight it, particularly cancer that has spread throughout the body. As a breast cancer researcher, knowing that you have the potential to make a real difference to those affected by breast cancer is a true motivator. It’s one of the reasons why I get out of bed every morning and why I love my job.
I’ve always been interested in cancer research and, following the completion of my PhD in bowel cancer at Flinders University, I was privileged to be offered a Postdoctoral Fellow position at the National Institute of Health in the United States, a world leader in health and medical research. There I expanded my understanding of how cancer works and received first class training in contemporary laboratory techniques, with my research primarily focusing on aggressive prostate cancer.
When I returned to Australia, I was intrigued by the concept that prostate and breast cancer, although different sex organs, are actually quite similar, both driven by rogue hormone receptors. I began to investigate breast cancer in greater detail, building on my knowledge of prostate cancer from my time in the US, primarily focussing on how different hormones and their hormone receptors can significantly impact on breast cancer growth.
Earlier this year, I was thrilled to be awarded an Early Career Fellowship from Cancer Council’s Beat Cancer Project. The funding will see me lead a three-year fellowship, which aims to better understand how hormones influence estrogen receptor positive breast cancer growth.
This project will see us use human tumours collected from donor patients. By working on human tumours outside of the body, we can essentially ’chop them up‘ to test a range of novel and repurposed hormonal therapies to see which ones work best to stop their growth. It’s a new treatment strategy, and because we are testing treatments on human tumours themselves, this leads to a better understanding of what therapies will work, potentially avoiding the trial and error associated with so many cancer treatments that fail in clinical trials.
Our expectation is that we can utilise the body’s own hormone receptors to shift estrogen receptor function away from cancer promoting to cancer suppressive. This is a drastic change from traditional hormonal therapies where the estrogen receptor is completely blocked. Patients suffer terrible side effects and, even worse, the tumours can eventually become resistant and spread to other sites in the body. Effectively, we want to try and make our bodies’ cells work with us to combat the cancer, not work against us to spread it.
This type of treatment will make a real difference to those women whose cancers are spread throughout the body, with the aim to use the body’s own hormone responses to stop it in its tracks. This will not only improve quality of life but ultimately lead to better treatment outcomes.
As a woman, this research is really important to me. I’ve met a lot of women affected by breast cancer, both personally and through my research at The University of Adelaide. Too many women in Australia and around the world are diagnosed with and ultimately lose their lives to breast cancer, and I want to change that for the better.
Funding from Cancer Council SA is vital in allowing me to translate my knowledge and ideas, test what treatments work in the lab, and ultimately, put it into practice.
Speak to any cancer researcher and they’ll tell you that their ultimate goal is that in the future, no one loses their life to cancer. Hopefully, through the generous support of Cancer Council SA, we are getting closer to making that dream a reality every single day.
Dr Jean Winter
University of Adelaide
Early Career Fellowship
Cancer Council's Beat Cancer Project
All the money raised through Cancer Council’s Girls’ Night In goes towards funding work into women’s cancers and supporting researchers like Dr Winter. To find out more and to register to host an event, visit www.girlsnightin.com.au.