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,
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.