Publish Date: 
Monday, October 9, 2023 - 11:15

Advancing breast cancer research and awareness: meet QUT Professor Rik Thompson

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

QUT Professor in Breast Cancer Research Rik Thompson leads a TRI-based group aiming to understand the molecular and cellular processes driving breast cancer risk, progression and therapy resistance. His group also tests novel therapies, working closely with clinical collaborators and engaging with consumer advocates. 

Could you provide an overview of your research in breast cancer?

Our research group is focused on early translational research, understanding the molecular and cellular process that drive breast cancer risk, progression and therapy resistance. We are also testing some novel therapies, such as Cold Atmopsheric Plasma. We try to work closely with clinical collaborators in all of these fields and engage consumer advocates where possible.

Mammographic density (MD) is a topic you're researching. Can you explain why MD is important in breast cancer risk assessment and early detection, and how your research is shedding light on this aspect?

MD is a double whammy. It is a proven breast cancer risk factor, affecting around 43 per cent of women in higher MD categories. Yet it is the white area on a mammogram, which interferes with the radiologist’s ability to see evidence of breast cancers - and provide an all-important early diagnosis. Our research is tackling both aspects. We have proven that blocking molecular processes associated with MD can cause a reduction in MD tissue grown in the lab. On the flip-side, you can see increased progression, proliferation and metastasis of benign breast cancer cells in our studies after co-implantation with high-MD tissue. We are using a portable nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument to monitor the changes in MD in small tissue pieces. The instrument may be useful in monitoring patient responses and identifying the one-third of women treated with targeted therapies who do not respond. If proven, this could save women undergoing long-term treatment with therapies that are not working, avoiding the potential side effects, and allowing use of alternative therapies.

As a founding member of inforMD (INformation FORum on Mammographic Density), how have you found it has contributed to raising awareness and understanding of mammographic density, both in the medical community and the general public?

There is considerable ‘consumer’ interest in MD, with women increasingly aware of MD and its potential effects on breast cancer risk and screening efficiency. It has been highly publicised, especially in the United States, where 38 different states have passed legislation in relation to women being ‘inforMD’ of their MD status. The USA FDA recently mandated provision of information in all US states by mid-2024. The inforMD website provides a source of information from scientists in Australia, in the context of Australia’s national screening program - which is different to the US. We are fortunate that the new National Health and Medical Research Council My Breast Cancer Risk Centre of Research Excellence (MyBRISK) will provide support to upgrade the inforMD website to better serve the consumer and medical community.

Plasma medicine is mentioned as a novel therapy approach to breast cancer. Could you explain what plasma medicine is and how it might be applied in the treatment of breast cancer?

Plasma medicine uses plasma, a gas subjected to an electric field, so that electrons separate from atoms. Lightning is an example of very hot plasma. We can also generate cold atmospheric plasma, which can be used medically and has shown to be beneficial for wound healing, ulcers and cancer. It is selectively toxic to cancer cells because they already have high levels of reactive chemicals. Adding more in the form of plasma pushes them over the survival threshold more easily than normal cells. This is particularly helpful in the most aggressive subclass, triple-negative breast cancer, with highly reactive cells that are particularly sensitive to plasma treatment. It is early days for plasma use in breast cancer but it shows great promise. In the meantime, we are working with Princess Alexandra Hospital radiotherapists Gishan Ratnayake and Howard Liu, and dermatologist Helmut Schaider, to test topical treatment of skin cancers. The plasma activity can also be transferred to liquid form, which we have shown to inhibit breast cancer cells in culture (bioarchive 10.1101/2023.05.30.542966).

In your opinion, what are the most critical challenges and opportunities in breast cancer research today, and how can individuals and communities contribute to raising awareness and supporting research efforts in the field?

Breast cancer has traditionally been well supported by philanthropy, which has been great and has enabled many projects to get off the ground. Such support is crucial. There are many avenues and advocacy groups through which the community can support breast cancer research. The research community is extremely grateful for the support.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What key messages or actions do you believe are crucial for promoting breast cancer awareness and early detection among the general public?

Early detection is key, with very high overall survival rates for breast cancers detected early. It is good to discuss with your GP and practise self examination regularly. Also be aware of individual risk factors. MD should be considered in conjunction with other risk factors, such as age at menarche and menopause, number of children and breastfeeding, family history, genetic risk, alcohol use and smoking. Studies are underway in Australia to consider more frequent screening of higher risk women, and less frequent screening for those with lower risks.

How can people, both those directly affected by breast cancer and those who want to show support, be involved in advocacy efforts and fundraising initiatives?

The door is open at TRI for consumers and community members keen to learn more about our research - and potentially align with specific research programs. Consumer training is important and helps both the consumers and researchers make effective use of their time and efforts. A growing number of avenues for consumer training are available. We hold an annual Breast Cancer Awareness Event, highlighting different approaches to breast cancer research across the OneTRI partners and providing an opportunity for consumers to interact with researchers. Our third annual event on Monday, 16 October from 10:00am-12:30pm, with a bake and plant sale from 8:00am. To show your support and make a donation, you can visit My Cause to contribute.

What advice would you give to aspiring researchers and advocates who are passionate about making a difference in the fight against breast cancer?

It is essential to engage the clinical community, find the key issues to study, and engage the consumer community. Collaborate with them, and with other researchers, to comprehensively address the topical issues. Adopt new technologies early, and if possible, spend time overseas to learn new technologies and approaches, as well to make connections.

Interested in Prof Rik Thompson's research? Get in touch via email at [email protected]