Dr Susan Woods – tracking a new drug for colorectal cancer

Adelaide-born Dr Susan Woods never forgets one particular meeting she had with a group of young cancer survivors. “They had amazing stories to tell and did so in an unassuming, giving way,” she says. “Their positive outlook and resilience were a powerful reminder that as researchers we have to provide them with better treatment options.”

To that end, 39-year-old Susan, who’s been involved in cancer research for eight years, is a senior research officer at the University of Adelaide. She has returned to her home city after spending several years in renowned international cancer labs, working with inspirational leaders.

In San Francisco, she spent time in the laboratory of Nobel laureate J. Michael Bishop, investigating a new drug for treating neuroblastoma. “It was amazing for a girl from Adelaide to collaborate with wonderful colleagues at the University of California San Francisco and with the biotech company that developed the drug,” she says.

Multicentre effort

Susan has also worked in Brisbane with outstanding researchers led by Professor Nick Hayward, studying melanoma and how changes to DNA can make patients more likely to get the disease.

She now hopes to use her experience with drug testing in her current project – as part of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Biology group headed by physician-scientist Dr Daniel Worthley. Here, with her Cure Cancer Australia-supported grant, she aims to continue her efforts to discover whether colorectal cancer can be prevented by a new drug aimed at “support cells” in the intestinal lining, where tumours form.

The work could form the basis of more extensive studies and, potentially, a clinical trial. “We’ve also seen levels of the factor that we’ll target in other cancer types, so our work may have wider significance outside colorectal cancer,” she adds.

Susan has also spent time in the past year working as part of a large, multicentre research effort looking at the cause of a stomach cancer syndrome that was first identified in Australian families. This has led to the identification of the genetic cause (a particular DNA mutation) for the syndrome.

“This discovery has instant clinical relevance and, for the first time, allows for informed genetic counselling for the Australian families and similarly affected families around the world,” she says.

Colorectal or bowel cancer is the third most common type of the disease in Australia after skin and prostate, costing health services over $1 billion annually. Despite public screening efforts, many people still present with advanced disease. “Sadly as yet there are no effective treatments for most of them,” Susan says.

As someone who’s had first-hand experience caring for a family member with metastatic disease, Susan is moved by the support that Cure Cancer Australia and their fundraisers give to projects such as hers. “This makes it imperative for me that the research we do is cutting-edge, innovative and produces real outcomes for patients.”

While she agrees that one of the biggest frustrations for scientists is spending time applying for grants that could be used for conducting experiments, there has to be some method of evaluation, she observes.

Meanwhile her message for people affected by cancer is to get the best medical advice you can, question your clinician if you don’t understand information, or seek someone else to explain it, and work out a plan for treatment. “Keep in mind it’s important to do things that make you happy, and recognise that mental wellbeing and strong relationships with friends and family all help.”

Susan enjoys spending her time away from work with her partner and their two small children, visits to the beach and a family farm, and playing hockey.

Susan is solely funded by The Can Too Foundation.