Newbie and “old hand” share $160K breast cancer research payday

Two breast cancer researchers – one at the top of her field and the other a promising newbie – have been awarded 2017 fellowships by the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation. The fellowships are worth $80,000 each.

Dr Euphemia Leung, a top researcher at Auckland University and herself a breast cancer survivor, has been awarded the 2017 NZBCF Belinda Scott Science Fellowship for her planned investigation of new drugs for aggressive triple negative breast cancers (TNBC). Many TNBC patients develop resistance to existing treatments, allowing their cancer to progress and become terminal. Dr Leung is investigating new inhibitor drugs to prevent that resistance developing.

Lizhou Liu, who recently completed her PhD studies at Otago University, was awarded the 2017 Belinda Scott Clinical Fellowship. She will use the funds to run a six-month pilot of a tai chi exercise programme that aims to reduce the nasty side-effects of breast cancer treatments and improve patient health.

“We received applications across wide-ranging areas of breast cancer research, and it was a tough choice, but these two applicants stood out for their personal qualities as well as the strength of their proposed research projects,” said Evangelia Henderson, chief executive at the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation. “Lizhou’s tai chi pilot is tremendously practical, with potential applicability to many patients in the near future. Euphemia’s study has a longer term focus, but it’s targeting a medical issue, treatment resistance, that so far has scientists and doctors stumped.”

Benefits of an integrated tai chi programme in breast cancer – Lizhou Liu, University of Otago

There are several highly effective treatments for breast cancer, but almost all patients suffer side-effects that range from unpleasant to life-threatening. Some affect quality of life on a daily basis – fatigue, sleep disturbance, nausea and vomiting, anxiety and depression. The ongoing physical side-effects can include reduced bone density (potentially leading to osteoporosis) and cardiac problems. For some patients, the severity of these side-effects leads them to cut short the treatment designed to prevent their cancer coming back.

There is growing evidence overseas that tai chi improves wellbeing and physical health of breast cancer survivors, but so far, researchers haven’t studied tai chi used during active treatment to improve tolerability of drugs and other treatments. And there have been no New Zealand-based studies of tai chi in cancer patients or survivors.

Lizhou Liu will conduct a six-month pilot study of tai chi with breast cancer patients at Dunedin Hospital. Her goal is to determine how a larger randomised trial of tai chi for breast cancer patients might work, including understanding how acceptable the exercise is to patients, defining clinical measures of effectiveness, and discerning whether tai chi has any negative effects. If the pilot proves successful, Ms Liu would aim to get a larger trial underway.

“I see this project as a chance to look at how we can add a complementary therapy into conventional breast cancer treatment here in New Zealand,” said Lizhou Liu. “My hope is that this study will be of real help to Kiwi women.”

“This was an exciting proposal for us, with its strong focus on practical support for women going through tough treatments for breast cancer,” said Evangelia Henderson. “Tai chi is potentially an effective and affordable exercise programme that could be used by a wide range of patients to mitigate the side-effects of treatment. “

Search for TDP1 and TDP2 inhibitors – Dr Euphemia Leung, University of Auckland

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is harder to treat than other breast cancers and often more aggressive. The new drugs that have made such a difference for patients with other forms of breast cancer don’t work in TNBC, leaving chemotherapy as the mainstay of their treatment. Sadly, many patients develop resistance to chemo, allowing their cancers to spread and ultimately to kill them.

Euphemia Leung will work with two enzymes, TDP1 and TDP2, recently identified as probable culprits in the development of chemo-resistance in some tumours. Researchers believe new drugs that inhibit TDP1 and TDP2 could help the chemotherapy to continue working in TNBC patients.

Dr Leung’s project will test powerful new drug compounds in the lab, to see which ones work best against TDP1 and 2. If her two-year project reaches a successful conclusion, the project would move forward into the next stage of drug development.

"I feel very privileged in receiving the Fellowship, as Belinda Scott was my surgeon when I had breast cancer nine or 10 years ago – after that surgery I changed my research focus to study breast cancer, said Euphemia Leung. “The NZ Breast Cancer Foundation gave me my first research grant back then, launching a very productive period in my research career – which is still going!”

“Drug development is a long road, not for the faint-hearted,” said Evangelia Henderson. “But Euphemia is a top-notch researcher with an excellent reputation internationally – if anyone can figure out what’s going on with TDP1 and 2, it’s her.”