Flinders Medical Centre Foundation
Flinders Medical Centre Foundation

Ovarian Cancer

Improving Screening For Inherited Cancers

Volunteer Service Supports Fresh Ideas

Screening For Inherited Breast And Ovarian Cancers

Healing Properties Of A Common Sea Snail

Improving Screening For Inherited Cancers
First Published: Investigator - August 2008

Important research at Flinders has continued to make inroads into inherited breast and ovarian cancers thanks to a $16,000 contribution from Angela Condous and the Advertiser and Sunday Mail Foundation (ASMF).

Dr Scott Grist and his team are developing a cost-effective pre-screening laboratory test to better identify individuals who may carry a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene defect.

The BRCA genes are responsible for repairing DNA damage in a cell. If a defect is inherited in one or both genes there is a 60-80% chance that breast or ovarian cancer will develop as DNA damage accumulates over time.

“Approximately 20% of those screened carry DNA variants that cannot be easily identified as those that cause cancer,” said Dr Scott Grist, Head of the Inherited Cancer Genetics Lab at Flinders Medical Centre.

“This represents a large group of individuals with an uncertain diagnosis who are not benefiting from the testing and who are put under additional psychological stress.”

The current screening method is also quite costly, limiting it to those who know they have a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

Using a technique that screens for DNA damage, this test can measure the rate of DNA repair of a possible BRCA gene defect carrier against the rate of repair from a healthy BRCA gene sample.

This will identify if a full screening of the BRCA genes is required, both saving un-necessary and extensive screening and easing the minds of those who don’t know their family’s medical history or have an unknown defect in a BRCA gene.

The ASMF will hold another fundraising lunch on 27 August 2008 to continue raising funds for breast cancer research at Flinders. Contact the Flinders Medical Centre Foundation on (08) 8204 5216 for more information or to book tickets.

Volunteer Service Supports Fresh Ideas
First Published: Investigator - February 2008

Thanks to the hard-working Volunteer Service for Flinders Medical Centre Inc. two bright young minds now have the means to pursue PhDs in groundbreaking fields.

Lauren Thurgood, one of two new Volunteer Service scholarship holders dedicates her time to researching the causes of kidney stones. Her doctorate is on how proteins help to control kidney stones, a field in which Flinders is leading internationally.

As an honours student Ms Thurgood was part of the research team led by Professor Rosemary Ryall who received a $1.2 million grant from the US National Institutes of Health in 2004. They were the first to discover and publish the existence of proteins inside the minerals, predominately calcium oxalate, which cause kidney stones when they attach to kidney cells.

Ms Thurgood hopes to build on this research by identifying the proteins within the crystals, and look at what effects single proteins have on the attachment of the crystals to the kidney cells.

She hopes her research will one day have clinical implications for preventing the formation of kidney stones.

Likewise, scholarship recipient Vicki Edwards is building on the research of Biological Scientists Dr Kirsten Benkendorff and Dr Catherine Abbott, who sought to harness the anti-cancer potential of a local species of sea snail.

It has been found the bioactive compounds involved in the Dicathais orbita or Australian Dogwhelk’s production of a purple dye have many possible medicinal uses, including a novel anti-cancer agent.

Under the supervision of Dr Fiona Young in Medical Biotechnology, Ms Edwards’ doctorate builds on “promising” research by Dr Benkendorff and Dr Abbott into the effects of the compounds on lymphoma and colorectal cancer cells.

Ms Edwards hopes to determine whether the compounds can also kill reproductive cancer cells, or whether they can have an effect on gynaecological conditions caused by hormonal imbalances such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.

She also hopes to investigate the viability of a homeopathic treatment for uterine cancer, Murex Purpurea, which has an active ingredient sourced from the same family of mollusc as the Australian Dogwhelk.

At present the Volunteer Service for FMC Inc. provides $194,000 annually to support medical research grants and have recently increased their support to provide for these two new PhD scholarships.

Screening For Inherited Breast And Ovarian Cancers
First Published: Investigator - April 2007

Thanks to money raised at the Pink Ribbon Ball a more sensitive and accessible test to screen for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is currently being devised by scientists at Flinders Medical Centre.

Dr Scott Grist, Head of the Inherited Cancer Genetics Lab, and his team are focusing on perfecting a technique that can simplify screening for genetic defects within the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumour suppressors involved in repairing DNA breaks within cells. If a defect is inherited in these genes there is an 80-90% chance that breast or ovarian cancer will develop. Inherited BRCA gene defects are also the leading risk factor for male breast cancers.

“The BRCA genes are important as they are central to DNA repair,” said Dr Grist. “DNA in our cells is damaged all the time. If you have a defect in the BRCA genes this damage cannot be fixed which leads to an accumulation of mutations that often result in cancer.”

Currently screening patients for these defects is costly and time consuming as the BRCA genes are quite large. This test is also limited to families with a proven history of cancer, unless individuals wish to spend the money required to undergo the screening.

It has been found that if there is a defect within these BRCA genes, double strand DNA breaks repair slower than they normally would. The team are working toward a sensitive way to measure how different this rate of DNA break repair is compared to when the BRCA genes are healthy.

Once this is discovered it will be much simpler to test a patient’s blood and see if the rate of repair indicates that there is a BRCA1 or BRCA2 defect. This will allow those with a family history of cancer to be screened much quicker and more cost effectively to identify if a full screen of the BRCA genes is required. Making this information much more accessible to those who think they may be at risk.

“The test will enable us to quickly screen larger numbers of people,” said Dr Grist. “If we find a gene defect in a familial cancer patient we can then do a simple screening on all family members to inform them if they carry the same gene defect or not.”

This test is still being fine tuned however once it is ready for use it will be a vital tool for those with a familial history of breast or ovarian cancer, to ease minds or prepare individuals for the possibility of cancer.

Healing Properties Of A Common Sea Snail
First Published: Investigator - April 2006

Flinders investigators are currently involved in harnessing the natural anti-cancer property created by a common sea snail which could be used to treat many different forms of cancer.

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff and Dr Catherine Abbott, Lecturers in Biological Sciences at Flinders University, have been investigating this marine snail, the Australian Dogwhelk Dicathais orbita, which is found throughout shallow rocky reef habitats along the southern coast from New South Wales to Western Australia.

This snail produces a purple dye, known as Tyrian purple, which appears to be a means of protecting its egg masses. It has been found that the compounds that produce this dye have many possible medicinal uses, one of these being a potent anti-cancer agent.

This agent appears to cause programmed cell death within cancerous cells, triggering these unwanted cells to self-destruct by shrinking and fragmenting slowly rather than a sudden disintegration that can be harmful to healthy neighbouring cells.

Currently the project is delving into the biological mechanisms that take place within this snail to create the purple dye. It is hoped that part of the process, the anti-cancer agent, can be harnessed and possibly used as a treatment for cancer.

As this project is only in the very early stages much research needs to be undertaken to make sure that biological material such as DNA, metabolic processes, enzymes and the membrane of healthy cells are not harmed or destroyed by using a treatment that utilises this agent.

The next step in this project will be to look at the gastro-protective elements of the snail and to ascertain whether it could be used as a functional food with healing properties, perhaps for colorectal cancers.

Dr Benkendorff is also interested in further investigating homeopathic remedies used for hundreds of years to treat female health issues by testing the healing properties of this snail on reproductive cell lines such as ovarian and breast cancers, and hormone production.

“This is a huge project with exciting potential, particularly as this snail has several interesting biological compounds that haven’t been seen before; this study could provide some very useful information in the treatment of cancers,” says Dr Benkendorff.

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