Breast cancer statistics in Australia are alarming. According to the McGrath Foundation 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with this all-too-common disease before the age of 85. Despite these figures, existing breast cancer detection methods have a number of worrying limitations.
“The gold standard for breast cancer screening is mammography but this is only available to women between the ages of 40 to 74 years old. Mammography can be coupled with ultrasound for these women and ultrasound is also sometimes used for younger women,” says Dharmica Mistry, University of Sydney alumna.
This is a result of breast density.
“Many women, particularly younger females have dense breasts making it harder to visualise a tumour using mammography. Given this, detection accuracy is limited to 70 to 80 per cent."
Shockingly, the best available detection method for women under 40 is a physical exam.
"The issue with each of these methods is that they are highly subjective.”
Beyond limited accuracy there are other restrictions that come with these techniques and imaging technologies.
“Mammography is painful and uncomfortable (50 per cent of eligible women self-exclude for this reason). It’s also unavailable in remote locations and exposes women to radiation.”
Given the pressing need to produce a more accurate breast cancer detection method, Dharmica, at only 22-years old, was overwhelmed when she made a breakthrough association between a person’s fat profile (lipids) and breast cancer.
“Armed with my undergraduate degree, I decided to take a risk and work for a small start-up company looking at the association between breast cancer and scalp hair using x-ray.
“I commonly used my hair as a healthy control in our experiments, but one day, suddenly, my hair was showing the breast cancer feature. Nervous, I spoke to my colleague, Dr Peter French about my hair regime, and that’s when it dawned on me that every so often I put olive oil in my hair as a moisturiser.
“Through a series of experiments, we were able to show that the feature in the hair was actually due to a change in a person’s fat profile, a special set of fats called lipids. This was a scientific breakthrough and led to the filing of an international patent application.
“Because hair is quite variable, we were later able to show that this lipid feature could be detected through a blood test,” says Dharmica.
A blood test for breast cancer has the ability to revolutionise the way we screen for this disease and also overcome the limitations of mammography.
“A blood test has improved accuracy, it’s available to women of all ages, it’s not subjective (reader dependent), it’s not limited by breast density, it’s more accessible to women in rural and remote regions, it’s more comfortable than mammography and it’s safer (no radiation exposure).”
While this research has unbelievable potential, the path from discovery to doctor’s desks is a difficult one.
“There is always plenty to do when commercialising research. We must validate our optimised platform, demonstrate that it is translatable, work towards regulatory approval and carry out formal clinical trials.
“The discovery is the easy part. The road ahead is very different to traditional research so you have to be open minded, read up, multi-skill and most importantly, speak to customers and industry to make sure you have a solution that matters,” says Dharmica.
It’s also incredibly important to believe in yourself and your discovery because there will be setbacks Dharmica advises.
“Shortly after we made our discovery, the company I was working for went into administration and the IP was lost. We knew there was something in our research and we felt it needed a chance.
“So, we found two angel investors and the four of us (including my co-inventor) co-founded BCAL Diagnostics in 2010, when I was just 24-years-old. I have been working here ever since and have progressed to chief scientist.”
BCAL Diagnostics hope to have commercialised their revolutionary early detection blood test very soon, where research could then shift focus onto other types of cancer.
“We have very preliminary data that shows that a blood test has the potential to work for other cancers too and we could be able to distinguish between different types of cancer. This is very exciting and opens up a whole world of opportunity.”