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Cancer researcher Dr Heather Lee awarded Metcalf Prize for stem-cell science

08/09/2019 / by admin

FIGHTING ROGUE CANCERS: Dr Heather Lee, NSW Cancer Institute’s early career fellow at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, where she is conducting award-winning research. Picture: Jonathan Carroll Dr Heather Lee movedto Sydney and then Cambridge to advance her study of genetics, onlyto find herself“about five minutes” from her childhoodhomeofNew Lambton Heightspursuingher most promisingwork yet.

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The cancer research fellowat the Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastlehas received one of two $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia for“early-career leadership” in the field of stem-cell science.

The awardrecognises Dr Lee’swork in creatingamethod of identifying rare and “rogue” cancer cells, which she believes may help scientists developnew ways of killingcancers that are resistant tochemotherapy.

HUNT: Dr Heather Lee at the lab at Hunter Medical Research Institute. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

“One ofthe big problems withtreating canceris that thecancer can change and it can come back,” Dr Lee said.

“When a cancer returnsthis is thought to be driven by rare cancer cells thathave special propertiesthat allow them to surviveinitial chemotherapy.

“We want to studythesereal cellsusing single cell analysis, and hopefullyidentify new ways of stopping cancers from coming back.”

Dr Lee’s current research into an aggressiveform of blood cancer, called acute myeloidleukaemia, uses a techniqueshe developed with colleagues in Cambridge to read the genetic sequence of individual cells.

STEM-CELL THEORY: A diagram showing the theory that catching cancer cells with rare properties or ‘cancer stem-cells’ is more effective than targetting other cancer cells. Picture: Public domain

The method also identifies“chemical flags” that govern which parts of the sequence the cell uses to function.

“The thing about this technique is that we can study one cell at a time, whereaspreviously we had to studythousands ofcells at a time.So now we can see differences between individual cells,” Dr Lee said.

The techniquewas particularly pertinent to cancer research, she said,because cancer cells often have chemical markers in the wrong place whencompared to surrounding tissue.

“The chemical flags make sure the cell’sdoingthe job it’s meant to be doing,” she said.

“So the cell starts misbehaving or starts growing more rapidly or failing to perform the properfunction.”

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS: Dr Heather Lee at the lab at Hunter Medical Research Institute. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

Dr Lee is currently using her ability tostudy the diversityin leukaemia cells to understand why some cells are resistant to treatment.

“No one has had the opportunity to look at how individual cells respond tothe drug until now,” she said.

The Merewether High School alumnussaid she felt “privileged” to conduct the researchin her hometown.

“We have quite abit of freedom here and the strength ofresearch in Newcastleis that it’s relativelysimple to work with clinicians,” she said.

“Personally, I had a daughterin theUK and it just makes a worldof difference tobe back home close to two sets of grandparents.”

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