Coming soon: A simple diagnostic blood test for breast cancer

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Cancer researcher Dharmica Mistry wins this year’s NSW Young Woman of the Year award

Adhering to the centuries-old daily ritual of applying oil to the hair, quite literally helped Dr Dharmica Mistry unlock breast cancer codes.

In 2008, as part of her PhD at Macquarie University, Dharmica made the connection that women with breast cancer have higher levels of phospholipids (fat derivatives) in their bloodstream, which could be detected both in the hair and serum.

The chance discovery by the inquisitive and determined medical researcher has eventually led to what could be the biggest breakthrough in breast cancer detection – a simple diagnostic blood test for specific lipid biomarkers, available through the GP to women of all ages.

Accessible mainly to women over 50, painful mammograms are currently the primary diagnostic tool in breast cancer detection. Younger women often have to rely on self-examination, with the highly susceptible even opting for preventative double mastectomy against the virulent cancer.

Dharmica’s path-breaking work in collaboration with like-minded researchers at University of Louisville, Kentucky may well mean that, in the near future, women could add breast cancer associated lipids (BCAL) blood test to the annual cholesterol, blood sugar, iron and other investigations they undertake. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the biggest killer.

Now chief scientist with BCAL Diagnostics, a company she co-founded, her translational research has made a quantum leap from bench to boardroom and her dream of significantly transforming women’s health worldwide through medical innovation is fast becoming a reality.

Dr Mistry has been named NSW Young Woman of the Yearfor her exceptional work in implementing life changing medical research around early detection of breast cancer”. Nominated by Health Minister Jillian Skinner, the award was presented at a glittering ceremony in the NSW Parliament House to commemorate international women’s day.

“Each and every woman who was nominated for an award is an inspiration and should be very proud to be recognised by her peers as having made an exceptional contribution to improve the lives of others,” Pru Goward stated at the presentation.

“From medical research that will revolutionise treatment of some of our greatest health problems, to charities, programs and education that are changing lives, these very worthy winners are outstanding examples of women who are making an immense contribution to the community and transforming lives,” Premier Baird added.

“The nomination was a great surprise and the award itself is a huge motivator,” Dr Mistry told Indian Link. “I am humbled by the recognition. The BCAL blood test will hopefully become a routine diagnostic tool for clinicians to make informed decisions and break cancer disease spectrum. It could also serve as a valuable monitoring tool.”

The 29-year-old is particularly excited about the impact her finding will have on young women and those in remote and rural areas.

“Besides being painless, the blood test will be particularly cost effective in rural areas as implementing outreach programs are very expensive. Mammograms are very cumbersome and inconvenient,” she explained.

A recipient of the 2015 Young Scientist Award as well as a $10,000 international engagement scholarship for health innovation, the microbiology graduate from University of Sydney has been collaborating with researchers in US since 2013 to commercialise their joint findings. Last year, BCAL Diagnostics ran preliminary tests on 100 samples with 90% accuracy.

“We will now conduct blind validation to see how our model fares,” Dharmica added.

A software platform to identify the set of biomarkers is being developed. The test is due to undergo large scale clinical trials next year with commercialisation likely by 2018. BCAL Diagnostics hopes to raise about $3 million to set up a laboratory for the clinical trials. It has established partnerships with a number of institutions including Sydney Breast Clinic and Royal Prince Alfred.

Meanwhile, Dharmica hopes to inspire a new generation of STEM students. “Innovations, particularly in medicine, are always exciting and life changing. There are numerous possibilities out there, for those who are passionate and determined. Scientists have the capacity to make the connections and come up with novel ideas. In doing so, jobs will be created and new opportunities forged. Translational research has the potential to make a global difference.”