Each year in February Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month is held across Australia to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and to recognise women, their families and friends affected by ovarian cancer. 26 February is Teal Ribbon Day, the central ovarian cancer awareness event.
We talked to UON researcher, Dr Nikola Bowden, who is currently investigating a DNA repair protein that is implicated in ovarian cancer tumours becoming resistant to chemotherapy, with hopes of eventually developing a prognostic test and more tailored treatments.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into your area of research?
I was born and raised in country NSW and spent most of my childhood in Tamworth. I have always been interested in maths, science and problem-solving and with the help of an excellent careers advisor ended up doing a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. He knew long before I did that I would be a researcher. My PhD was on schizophrenia but my current research interests are in developing new tests for melanoma and ovarian cancer. I really like using new cutting-edge techniques that use the whole genome to discover more about cancer and how we can better diagnose and treat patients.
What are you passionate about? How can others in the community get involved?
I am passionate about improving cancer diagnosis and treatment so that the outcome for people diagnosed with cancer will be better. We are at an incredibly exciting time when new treatments are being developed and we are starting to treat each patient individually rather than a “one treatment fits all” approach.
Besides my research I am incredibly passionate about supporting early-career researchers and women in science. I belong in both of these categories and want to see the support offered dramatically improved for the generation of researchers coming along behind me.
I am very lucky that the community is heavily involved in the Hunter Medical Research Institute. A lot of the funding I have received for my research has come from donations and events run by the community. To be involved or help out I encourage you to attend a HMRI or PULSE function or to donate to your research charity of choice. Every dollar and minute of time volunteered to help will get closer to our goals of improving cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Has what you’re researching changed your point of view or reaffirmed something you already felt? In what way?
Being involved in cancer research has opened my eyes to how little we know about the cancers we are trying to cure. Ovarian cancer and melanoma are continually evolving and changing so treating them is like shooting at a moving target. Despite this, I am always heartened by the passion and support patients, carers and family members have for research. I am yet to meet a patient that is not strong and determined, most are also outspoken about supporting research into their disease. As researchers we sometimes forget that these people are just as invested in what we do as we are, so they should be kept informed and given a chance to be involved. That is the greatest thing I have learnt from all of this.
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?
I found great inspiration reading the books The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Double Helix by James Watson. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died of cervical cancer without ever knowing that the first and most commonly used cell line in cancer research was grown from her tumour. She will never know how much medicine has advanced because of her cells. I never want to see anyone treated in that way again. It changed my perception of the importance of ethics in research. The Double Helix is James Watson’s personal account of how he discovered the DNA double helix structure. It was inspirational to read how they persevered to find the answer, but also infuriating that Rosalind Franklin, who did most of the work towards the discovery, received very little acknowledgement and died before she could be given the Nobel prize.
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
A few years ago I found what appeared to be a big, obvious hole in what we know about how melanomas repair damage to DNA caused by sunlight. After doing a lot of reading I discovered the same process is required for chemotherapy drugs that cause their effect by damaging DNA. We did a small pilot project and discovered this process is broken in melanoma and have since started testing if it becomes broken down in ovarian cancer when they become resistant to chemotherapy.
You’re developing a diagnostic test for chemotherapy response in ovarian cancer. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
In the process of trying to find out more about the DNA repair process and how it can cause resistance to chemotherapy, I discovered there was quite a bit of groundwork already done on testing a couple of the proteins in ovarian cancer. The research was in its infancy and seemed to abruptly end in the late 90’s, before it was tested on a large scale in clinical tumour samples from patients undergoing chemotherapy. About the same time I lost a really good mate from my hockey team to ovarian cancer so I became even more interested in following this up. I wrote a review of what was already known and came up with the plan of continuing on with the work. I spoke with Pathologists and Gynaecology-Oncologists about potentially running the project and they were incredibly supportive. Now we are in the process of collecting the data.
What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing?
I hope all of the research I do will one day directly benefit patients with cancer. In the short term (less than ten years) I hope we can test every tumour individually and treat it according to the best drugs for that individual. Even if only in small increments I hope to see cancer treatment and diagnosis continue to improve.
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
My proudest achievement, without a doubt is raising three beautiful children while maintaining a career in science. I have two daughters who understand they can have a career and be a mother too, you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project would be to collect tumours from patients, test the DNA of the tumour and tell the Oncologists in a short amount of time what the best treatment is for that patient. Of course, I would then love to see every patient respond to the treatment.
What does the future hold?
I have no idea – that’s partly why research is exciting. We never know what we are going to find from day to day. I really hope that in the future we will see cancer treated effectively with no recurrence, I think that is something we can achieve in our lifetime. I also hope to see change in the gender balance and diversity in science, in twenty years I want to see Professors being from all backgrounds, nationalities, female and male.
Nikola speaks about her personal connection to ovarian cancer.
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
I don’t think I can choose a favourite, they are all so different, but I really like visiting the harbour and the city centre. I love all the old buildings and the history that goes with them.
Can you name a local hero?
Carol Duncan – Setting up the Lost Newcastle group, where the history, stories and photos of Newcastle’s past can be shared, was wonderful foresight into maintaining our city’s history. She is a master storyteller and we are very fortunate to have her passion for our city.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
Spending lazy late Sunday afternoons at home with my family sitting outside by the pool and enjoying the warm weather. Watching the kids do Nippers is fun too – seeing my daughter become comfortable in the surf was the best part of this summer.
Playing hockey for the mighty Red and White – Oxfords Ladies Hockey Club!!
Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?
3 small children means we don’t get out for dinner much, but we visit The Letter Q in Joslin St, Kotara as much as possible. In my opinion, they make the best coffee in town and have dozens of different flavoured macarons – it is too hard to choose just one.
What is your favourite getaway destination?
Every year we got to Terrigal for a weekend and catch up with our old Uni friends. We love that we can walk to the beach or out for dinner and it has such a nice holiday feeling there.
Tell us your number one Newcastle insiders’ tip?
Be a tourist in your own town – go on a tour, visit the Museum or the beach. We live in a beautiful city – get out and enjoy all of it.
Do you know someone in our region making a difference? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org