13 June 2007
Each year, the highest ranked applicant for an NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) Medical and Dental Postgraduate Research Scholarship wins the Gustav Nossal Scholarship. This year’s recipient Dr Sandra Biankin, is using the funds to undertake her PhD at Garvan.
“This is a very prestigious scholarship and will probably help me secure grants later in my career,” said Sandra. “The travel grant, a valuable part of the scholarship package will allow me to attend international conferences and expand my knowledge and contacts.”
Sandra, a pathologist with a strong interest in breast cancer is studying the action of a gene named ‘hedgehog’ in a newly described kind of breast cancer known as ‘basal-like cancer’.
‘Hedgehog’ a gene discovered by mutating a fly whose larvae look like hedgehogs, makes cells more stem-cell-like when activated. Hedgehog genes are important in telling an embryo how to develop.
Until recently, it was thought hedgehog genes were turned off in adult life. It has been discovered, however that they are turned on when people have certain cancers (skin, lung, gastro-intestinal).
Basal-like breast cancer is associated with high levels of hedgehog expression and poor survival levels. It’s a more primitive, more stem-cell-like breast cancer than other known breast cancers. So far little is known about it and that is why Sandra has chosen it as the subject of her doctorate.
With our increasing knowledge of genetic characteristics, we can now treat different cancers in very specific ways. Scientists already know how to target the genes expressed in at least two of the other known breast cancers.
Sandra believes that blocking hedgehog may be a potential treatment for basal-like breast cancer. She has carried out some preliminary work in human tissue and is now testing her theory in cell culture models.