Breast can­cer break­through:

Meet the im­pres­sive young Aussie sci­en­tist pi­o­neer­ing a blood test for the de­tec­tion of breast can­cer. It may just save your life,

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - as Sheree Mut­ton re­ports.

the im­pres­sive young sci­en­tist pi­o­neer­ing a life-sav­ing new test

It was a chance dis­cov­ery by all ac­counts. Fresh out of univer­sity after com­plet­ing a science de­gree, Dharmica Mistry be­gan work­ing as a lab tech­ni­cian at a small start-up com­pany look­ing at the as­so­ci­a­tion between breast can­cer and scalp hair.

“One day, I used my own hair as a con­trol and found it gave the same pat­tern as though I had breast can­cer,” re­calls Dr Mistry. “There was no rea­son to sus­pect that I had breast can­cer, so my su­per­vi­sor, Dr Peter French, quizzed me as to what I had done to my hair. ‘Noth­ing,’ I replied, be­fore re­mem­ber­ing I had sprayed it with olive oil to make it glis­ten.”

It was only then that Dr Mistry and Dr French re­alised what could be the big­gest break­through in breast can­cer de­tec­tion – that lipids (oils that ex­ist in the mem­branes of ev­ery cell in our body) were com­ing from the blood of breast can­cer pa­tients and be­ing de­posited in their hair. And if that pat­tern could be seen in the hair, it could likely be seen in the blood too.

Look­ing back, Dr Mistry says she would moisturise her long, black locks with oil ev­ery few months to help it shine. She is still as­tounded that a sim­ple beauty trick helped her un­earth a new way to de­tect breast can­cer. “It was a very ex­cit­ing find­ing,” she says. Her ground-break­ing re­search earned her the ti­tle of Aus­tralia’s 2015 Young Sci­en­tist of the Year and 2016 NSW Young Woman of the Year.

Born in Eng­land to In­dian par­ents, Dr Mistry moved to Syd­ney when she was six. After high school she com­pleted a science de­gree at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

Now the Chief Sci­en­tist at BCAL Di­ag­nos­tics, a com­pany which she co-founded, Dr Mistry, 30, is de­ter­mined to make the blood test ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able for all women. “My main drive and fo­cus is to get this test out there to women around the world,” she says. “The test will be as sim­ple as head­ing to your doc­tor for a blood test, as we do for many other reg­u­lar check-ups, and the cus­tomer will have their blood taken through a pathol­ogy group. The pathol­ogy lab­o­ra­tory will process the sam­ple and send the re­sults back to the cus­tomer’s doc­tor.”

It sounds sim­ple enough, but Dr Mistry says there is still much to do in her quest to have an ac­cu­rate and non-in­va­sive way to di­ag­nose breast can­cer for women of all ages.

“We ex­pect to be­gin our clin­i­cal tri­als in 2017 and hope to have a test on the mar­ket by 2018-19,” she says.

Pre­lim­i­nary tests, how­ever, are pos­i­tive, show­ing 90 per cent ac­cu­racy with the test’s abil­ity to iden­tify early-stage in­va­sive breast can­cer. Cur­rently, mam­mo­grams are the pri­mary di­ag­nos­tic tool in breast can­cer de­tec­tion for women aged over 50, but Dr Mistry says that test is not ideal. She says while rou­tine mam­mo­grams do save lives by iden­ti­fy­ing the pres­ence of can­cer, the pro­ce­dure has a num­ber of lim­i­ta­tions, mainly lim­ited ac­cu­racy for women un­der the age of 50 due to their high breast den­sity,” she says.

In New Zealand, women can have free mam­mo­grams from 45-69 years of age, but younger women are re­liant on self-ex­am­i­na­tion. “I find it in­cred­i­ble that we have ad­vanced so much in the world of medicine, yet the ‘best’ way to de­tect breast can­cer in women un­der the age of 50 is only by phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of the breast,” says Dr Mistry. “By the time a lump is iden­ti­fied by feel, it can be quite ad­vanced, mean­ing the treat­ment op­tions are lim­ited, es­pe­cially in younger women. We also have so many women un­der 50 who have a strong fam­ily his­tory, but no re­li­able way to de­tect the dis­ease early.

“Clearly, we need a more ac­cu­rate screen­ing tool that can be used for women of all ages more reg­u­larly and one that is more ac­ces­si­ble to women in re­mote and ru­ral ar­eas world­wide. Mam­mog­ra­phy would still have a key place in breast can­cer de­tec­tion, but the hope is the BCAL blood test would as­sist in reach­ing women who cur­rently can’t [due to age or surgery] or choose not to be rou­tinely screened by mam­mog­ra­phy.

“A highly ac­cu­rate blood test would rev­o­lu­tionise the way we screen for breast can­cer, a dis­ease that af­fects one in eight women.”

The New Zealand Breast Can­cer Foun­da­tion’s CEO Evan­gelia Hen­der­son sup­ports the search for new meth­ods for early de­tec­tion. “Mam­mo­grams are the best way to de­tect breast can­cer to­day, but it would be short­sighted to as­sume they al­ways will be. It would be won­der­ful to have a cheaper, less in­va­sive and hope­fully ear­lier de­tec­tion method. The NZBCF would be de­lighted to look at sup­port­ing a trial here of a promis­ing new de­tec­tion method.”

My main fo­cus is to get this test out there.

Dr Mistry hopes to have the breast can­cer blood test avail­able by 2018.

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