Eureka for UWA scientists in cancer ‘holy grail’

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Three University of WA scientists have won national recognition for their work to develop a new method to detect abnormalities inside leukaemia cells, described as the “holy grail” for assessment of many cancers. 

Researchers Wendy Erber, Kathryn Fuller and Henry Hui were named on Wednesday night as winners of an Australian Museum Eureka Prize for innovative use of technology.

Their groundbreaking invention, which can rapidly detect abnormal chromosomes inside leukaemia cells, is considered a major advance that will lead to personalised treatments and better patient care.

Professor Erber, who is also the executive dean of health and medical Sciences at UWA, said yesterday that they were honoured to have Australian science recognise their efforts after three years of hard work. 

“The greatest winners are patients,” she said. “We’re doing this for them.”

Named Immuno-flowFISH, the automated method allows the cells to be seen using a microscope built into the machine used for the test, known as an imaging flow cytometer.

Professor Erber said it was 1000 times more likely to detect the presence of disease than old tests.

“Our test is so sensitive and we can detect so few cells that we will be able to detect this chromosome change with greater accuracy and in more patients, and therefore we can give them the right treatment,” she said. 

“This is very much a person-alised approach which will improve the accuracy of treatment and also the ability to monitor their disease after they have been treated. It should lead to better treatment outcomes.”

Professor Erber said they had received a reference for their award submission from US scientist David Basiji, a co-inventor of the imaging flow cytometer machine, saying that he believed what they had achieved would not be possible.

“They had tried for 10 years and failed,” she said. 

“And he said this was the holy grail for leukaemia and cancer, to be able to do this, because it’s going to mean so much for so many.”

“Many leukaemias and about half of cancers have a change in the chromosomes that could potentially be detected using this method.” 

Professor Erber said the team was about to embark on a collaboration with Cambridge University to develop their work.

UWA Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater said the research would have a real impact on the lives of patients.

“This new method is able to detect just one leukaemia cell in 10,000 normal cells, which is a huge step in the ability to pick up the presence of leukaemia earlier,” she said.

The Eureka prizes are Australia’s leading science awards, rewarding excellence in the fields of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science.

Period31 Aug 2018

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