Christmas Appeal : Dr Nikola Bowden

Seasonal Appeal : Dr Nikola Bowden

Our December Researcher Spotlight focuses on the work of Dr. Nikola Bowden, a Molecular Biologist at the University of Newcastle who works directly with cancer patients and their families to improve outcomes for melanoma patients.

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Nikola first received a Cure Cancer Australia grant in 2010, followed by another grant in 2013. She was in fact offered a third grant, but was in the fortunate position of being able to turn it down, having successfully obtained a 3-year Cancer Institute NSW grant at the same time.

‘I was so honoured to have been offered a third grant from Cure Cancer Australia, but I was actually really glad to have been able to turn it down,’ says Nikola. ‘It meant that another scientist would be given the opportunities that I had – those two early grants made all the difference to my career.’

A lot of Nikola’s research has involved direct contact with ‘consumers’ (the term used in cancer research circles for people who have been affected by cancer), who helped her make important decisions which affected the direction of her research. By ensuring she understands what is important to them, rather than focusing on numbers of publications or theories about which type of UV-light causes the most damage, Nikola has been able to focus on real outcomes for real people. 

‘I was dealing with people who had actually had melanoma, or whose child or loved one had died from the disease. They were asking questions like ‘why can’t you work on how to treat this better?’ and that really made me look at things in a different way,’ explains Nikola.

‘My whole lab was working on understanding why melanomas have very high amounts of DNA mutations from UV-light. After a meeting with consumers, one of them pointed out that while it was a scientifically interesting area, we won’t stop Australians having sun exposure and it doesn’t help patients with advanced disease who really need more treatment options. So, we finished off the UV experiments and started to look at why melanomas don’t respond to a type of chemotherapy that causes the same type of DNA mutations as UV-light does. We figured if we could find why they don’t respond, maybe we could target the fault to get chemotherapy to work again. After 3 years, we have a new combination of chemotherapy drugs that target the fault and cause an increase in immune response.’

Nikola’s hands-on approach certainly resonated with these consumers. A variation of her original melanoma research has since been applied to work for ovarian cancer, which has been supported by the McGuigan family whose daughter Vanessa died from the disease at the age of 21.  The family initially funded a part-time Research Assistant for two years to support Nikola’s research, and once Nikola’s funding had run out, they gifted the money to cover her salary for the next ten years. This huge act of generosity demonstrates the tangible impact Nikola’s work is having.

‘Having that sort of encouragement from people – real people who understand firsthand the destructive impact that cancer can have – has spurred me on in my career and made me more determined than ever to try and make a difference,’ says Nikola.

Nikola’s work has also been influenced by input from doctors and clinicians, who explained to her that they would never use her chemotherapy on people at the doses she was using in the lab, however good the results might be. Following advice from a number of oncologists, Nikola altered her experiments so that they could be made applicable to real people, resulting in a worthwhile ‘product’ which is now undergoing testing.

‘Chemotherapy is a very ineffective treatment for melanoma, so oncologists will not use it,’ says Nikola. ‘One of the biggest obstacles we have faced is getting oncologists to see chemotherapy from a new perspective. We use it to ‘prime’ the immune system, not to kill the tumours. Once the oncologists understand our concept they are usually really excited to try it and follow our progress.’

We are incredibly proud that Nikola’s melanoma work funded by Cure Cancer Australia has gone to clinical trial. ‘It was an outcome I had never expected from my research, as at that point in my career I was a pure lab scientist,’ says Nikola.

The first trial began in March 2017 with Patient 1, whose disease began to progress whilst on immunotherapy. He had rapidly growing metastatic melanoma in his lymph nodes and he was expected to develop new metastases. Eight months since he started treatment on our trial, he has no new melanoma metastases and his remaining lymph node has stopped growing and has begun to die. His blood tests also indicate his disease has stopped growing.

Although treatment for the first patient in the trial has been a success, it hasn’t been without its challenges. The combination of drugs tried on the patient massively exceeded Nikola’s research budget – an enormous $2,600 per dose for ten doses.  This forced her to go back to the drawing board, and, working with two pharmaceutical companies, she managed to come up with a different combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy at only $3,000 per patient for the entire treatment. Nikola will now trial the adjusted approach on more patients in the hope of further successful results.

For emerging scientists looking to break into the world of cancer research, Nikola has one piece of advice; ‘Park your ego at the door,’ she says. ‘Your scientific success is not what the patients care about. When you are looking for funding support, write about what the donors want to know and make it easy for them to understand.’

Research isn’t just about science. It’s about making a difference to real people and working towards a future where we no longer have to worry about the devastating effect of cancer. We will not cure cancer without research, which is why your support is so invaluable.

Donate to the Seasonal appeal here and help make this the last generation to die from cancer.