Understanding a cancer cell can change everything from diagnosis to prognosis

May 5 2020

Associate Professor Nikki Verrills is developing new therapies to treat cancer by targeting specific changes in cancer cells. While Nikki’s work will be applicable to all types of cancer, she primarily focusses on breast cancer and acute myeloid leukeamia (AML).

What takes a cell and makes it change and become cancerous? Understanding the basic biology of the cancer cell is the key to delivering better outcomes for people with cancer. The work that Nikki does in the lab working on this very problem relies on two types of donations: funding, and cancer samples. Whether it’s tumour samples from the Hunter Cancer Biobank, or blood samples from the AML Biobank set up by Nikki and Associate Professor Anoop Enjeti 10 years ago, patient and community impact is vital in achieving exciting medical outcomes.

In her research career, Nikki has had a number of breakthroughs: one of the most exciting is her discovery that a protein called PP2A has potential as an anti-cancer therapy. Why? Nikki discovered that it’s inactivated in some myeloid leukaemia’s and breast cancers – but it can be reactivated using certain drugs – and these proteins can then potentially be used to kill cancer cells.

Nikki’s recent work with Dr Matt Dun has built on this work, identifying the specific cellular mechanism that switches PP2A activity off AML, actively promoting cancer development. Now they’ve made the discovery, they are able to take the next step – develop better drugs to treat the cancers.

The ultimate aim of Nikki’s work is to enable clinicians to determine at diagnosis exactly what kind of treatment a patient needs; and to arm the clinicians with the right drugs to treat those patients. With both breast cancer and AML, there are types of cancer that are resistant to treatment, but this is often only discovered after a patient’s gone through a harrowing course of chemotherapy. Ideally, diagnostic tests will be developed based on research outcomes like Nikki’s to help stratify patients so everyone can receive the individualised treatment they need for better outcomes.

More than 3000 Australian women still die of breast cancer every year, and only one in four AML patients will survive more than five years. This is why Nikki does what she does.

Nikki spoke with ABC Newcastle's Kia Handley. Listen here