Running cancer secrets to ground

Award-winning University of Otago biochemist and breast cancer researcher Dr Anita Dunbier is...
Award-winning University of Otago biochemist and breast cancer researcher Dr Anita Dunbier is also a keen mountain runner. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Otago is a province with a rich history of achieving firsts. We have led the way in many fields and that tradition continues. Researchers at the University of Otago are attracting international attention and some have been granted millions of dollars for cutting-edge projects. What are they up to? Reporter John Gibb does his own research on the researchers.

Dr Anita Dunbier, a senior lecturer in the University of Otago biochemistry department, often starts her day with a two-hour early morning run.

Dr Dunbier is not only an award-winning breast cancer researcher but also a keen mountain runner.

Last year, she was awarded a University of Otago Early Career Award for Distinction in Research.

Late last year, she completed the Kepler Challenge, a demanding 60km race along the Kepler Track, starting near Te Anau.

Born in Central Otago, Dr Dunbier (38) grew up on a high-country sheep farm near Alexandra, attending Dunstan High School.

She was a keen horse rider and has always been an outdoors person.

After gaining an Otago PhD in biochemistry, she worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

While at the institute, Dr Dunbier played a key role in discovering new links between three genes and breast cancer, which could lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating hormonal breast cancer.

This find resulted in a blaze of international media publicity in 2011.

When she returned to an Otago University job that year, she decided to increase her running, after being ''re-wowed by the amazing scenery'' near Dunedin.

''I very much do it for relaxation,'' she said.

''I think while I'm running. There's a lot of time for thinking.

''I've had some brilliant ideas on the top of Swampy [Summit] or Flagstaff,'' she adds with a smile.

There is a personal edge to her scientific work.

''I became involved in cancer research because I had lost family members to cancer and wanted to do something that would help prevent this happening to others.''

Dr Dunbier does not underestimate the demanding challenge still posed by breast cancer.

It results in the death of almost half a million women worldwide each year and about 600 in New Zealand, where the rate is growing.

About one in eight New Zealand women will be diagnosed with this cancer, often while having dependants, and ''in the prime of their working lives''.

An outsider looking into the world of breast cancer research sees some intriguing paradoxes and contradictions in Dr Dunbier's research.

She highlights one of these when she compares fighting cancer with humankind's interaction with endangered species.

''Humans have been very good at making species extinct, but not so good at making cancer extinct,'' she says.

Another striking contradiction is the way some human immune cells, instead of attacking and destroying a breast tumour, can sometimes actually protect the tumour, and make it more dangerous.

''My own research has revealed that, in breast cancer, immune cells can play a `Jekyll and Hyde' role, either helping the tumour to grow or blocking this process.''

About 80% of breast cancer in this country was oestrogen receptor positive.

Dr Dunbier's research group had shown that after anti-oestrogen therapy stopped these cancer cells from growing, in some cases they then sent out signals and ''the body's immune cells rush to their aid''.

Some specific immune cells then invaded the tumour and produced molecules that ''encourage the tumour cells to grow''.

The Otago researchers were trying ''to stop the ambulance coming to help''.

This is where another paradox comes in.

If immune cells sometimes hinder instead of helping fight breast cancer, in another irony, some common drugs - particularly aspirin - that might be thought to be ineffective against cancer could prove helpful when combined with anti-oestrogen treatment.

Dr Dunbier hoped the humble aspirin could prove an effective immune system ''ambulance-stopper''.

Published studies have already shown that women taking small doses of aspirin, typically for cardiac health or to prevent stroke, were less likely to develop breast cancer than others who were not.

Breast cancer patients who took aspirin appeared half as likely to have it recur.

Surprisingly, aspirin was still not recommended as part of the standard breast cancer treatment.

That was because people did not understand how it worked, but she believed one of its effects could be to block the body's immune cells.

Big drug companies had developed many important therapies over the years.

But researching the role of aspirin in combination with anti-oestrogen therapy was unlikely to be attractive to such companies because aspirin was not patentable and offered little commercial return for any research spending.

That was where non-profit university research could help make a life-giving difference by helping women ''get more benefit'' from anti-oestrogen therapy.

Work began late last year on a related clinical trial, to test the effectiveness of combining aspirin and anti-oestrogen therapy, involving 100 breast cancer patients in Christchurch, under the direction of Prof Bridget Robinson, a medical oncologist at Otago University's Christchurch campus.

Dr Dunbier warns ''there's not going to be a single magic bullet'' to make this cancer disappear. But aspirin could reduce the inflammatory response and prove a surprisingly effective aid in the fight against breast cancer.





• Name and age: Dr Anita Dunbier (38)

• Occupation: Senior lecturer, Otago biochemistry department.

• Qualifications: Include PhD (Otago), 2004.

• Short work history: Includes research fellow, Institute of Cancer Research and Royal Marsden Hospital, London (2007-11), Otago senior lecturer, since 2011.

• Proudest scientific achievement: Identifying that oestrogen made in other parts of body affects the way breast tumours respond to treatment. This has changed the focus of drug development and clinical management in this area.





What is your research about?

My research group seeks to improve outcomes for people with breast cancer by identifying which patients will benefit most from particular therapies and developing better therapies for those who are unlikely to benefit from standard treatments.

Why is it important?

The rate of breast cancer in developed countries is increasing, particularly the oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer subtype which our work focuses on.

Breast cancer predominantly affects women, who are often mothers, grandmothers, partners, sisters and daughters, carers and employees and volunteers, often in the prime of their lives and contributing much to the lives of others.

We want to ensure these women receive the best treatment.

Most interesting aspect of your research?

By examining very small molecular changes and differences in tumours we are able to predict big changes that may happen as much as 10 years later, such as the cancer returning elsewhere in the body.

In what way is it unique?

My research group's work examining the effect of immune cells on this specific type of breast cancer is internationally unique and our trial of aspirin in combination with anti-oestrogen therapy in these patients is a worldwide first.



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