Heather Cunliffe

Breast cancer research treatment is no longer one-size-fits all.

Funding by the Otago Medical Research Foundation has opened doors for Dr Heather Cunliffe's breast cancer research.

Treatment is no longer one-size-fits all.  Targeted treatments are already tailored to women according to three important gene markers that help define what fuels their breast cancer. Tailoring the right treatment to block a cancer’s fuel makes a tremendous difference to patient survival.

But Dr Cunliffe, based in the University of Otago Department of Pathology, says for the 12 percent of women in New Zealand diagnosed with breast cancer that is negative for all three markers (known as triple negative), chemotherapy is the only drug treatment option.

Dr Cunliffe and her US collaborators discovered that a marker called the androgen receptor –important for guiding drug treatment in prostate cancer – is positive in 25 percent of all triple negative breast cancers. This offered an attractive new targeted treatment opportunity.  

Anti-androgen treatment proved successful in about half of the cases, but showed only a partial response in the remaining cases, leaving unanswered questions.

Dr Cunliffe, who studied in Dunedin but has trained and worked in the US for 15 years, is now looking at the underlying genetics and biology of these cancer cells to define how to effectively target the partial-response cases to the anti-androgen drugs.

With funding support from the Otago Community Trust through the Otago Medical Research Foundation, she studied the biology of triple negative, androgen receptor positive breast cancers and developed a novel combination of treatments that successfully killed these cancers in the laboratory setting.

It's hoped the next step is clinical trials, leading to more accurate diagnoses and smarter combination treatments that could significantly impact survival all for patients diagnosed with triple negative, androgen receptor positive breast cancer.

She says the oncology world is now very focused on precision therapy approaches which treats the biology observable in each patient’s cancer. "Tests ultimately won't just diagnose cancer, oncologists will be able to identify the specific factors that are fueling each individual patient’s cancer, so that treatment can be tailored to target and kill their cancer cells."

"We have the tools to now address very complex issues in cancer management, thanks to cutting-edge technologies born since the decoding of the Human Genome in 2003.  It's an exciting time to be a researcher, and there’s tremendous new hope for cancer patients."

"I'm grateful for the funding to pursue this work, because it produces peer- reviewed results that other funding bodies take notice of, attracting further investment and support to move new discoveries toward clinical practice."