Breast cancer research

Mapping the tumour landscape to develop novel treatments and improve immunotherapy for triple-negative breast cancer

Dr Kellie Mouchemore

Dr Kellie Mouchemore’s research is funded by Cure Cancer

She is based  at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), La Trobe University.

Dr Kellie Mouchemore is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, where she works in the Metastasis Research Laboratory. She completed her PhD on cancer immunology in 2018 at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Her Cure Cancer-funded immunotherapy research is a space in which she believes she can have the greatest impact on people with a lived experience of breast cancer, who are a constant source of inspiration for her. 

Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC)

More than 2500 people will be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) every year in Australia. Making up 10-15% of breast cancers in women and people assigned female at birth, TNBC is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis that is notorious for affecting younger women under 50 years. The risk of developing TNBC is higher in people with mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

Unlike other breast cancer types, TNBC lacks the 3 features commonly found on breast cancer cells (oestrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors), which are typically targeted during breast cancer treatment. While chemotherapy is commonly used in current treatments, it is less effective in controlling advanced TNBC, resulting in a higher overall mortality.

Unfortunately, patients are at risk of cancer recurrence in the first 3 years following initial treatment, and the majority of deaths from this cancer occur in the first 5 years. Effective targeted therapies are urgently needed.

Dr Kellie Mouchemore’s breast cancer research

“Funding from Cure Cancer will importantly boost my track record as an independent research scientist, placing me in a strong position to apply for more funding to build my own research group. In 5 years, I hope to be leading a team and supporting the next generation of scientists to make novel discoveries that drive meaningful change for breast cancer patients.”

- Dr Kellie Mouchemore

The TGA recently approved immunotherapy for both high-risk early and advanced TNBC, which targets the immune system and is used in combination with chemotherapy. However, only around 50% of eligible patients will respond well to the therapy. This indicates that currently limited biomarkers are not sufficient to predict whether patients will benefit from immunotherapy. As a result, the remaining 50% of patients will undergo mostly ineffective treatment, risking side effects and potential worsening of their disease.

Dr Kellie Mouchemore aims to tackle this problem in her Cure Cancer-funded project by identifying further biomarkers that predict those who are unlikely to respond to immunotherapy.

Using a cutting-edge sequencing technique, Kellie and her team will map the precise location of up to 500 genes in each cell of breast tumour biopsies. They will identify the genes and cell types that are causing resistance in patients who have not responded well to immunotherapy. Then, they will investigate existing treatments that they can repurpose to target these factors and test them in combination with immunotherapy to improve treatment effectiveness.

Ultimately, Kellie hopes her research will improve the precision and success of immunotherapy for TNBC with fewer side effects and increased survival, offering hope to patients who have limited treatment options.

The importance of funding cancer research

Kellie’s research is driven by “the hope that one day, the women in my life won’t have to live with so much anxiety around their breast cancer risk or diagnosis”. Working within a hospital setting, she is inspired by the patients who, in their willingness to provide their samples, share her goal of creating a better future for others.

Like many other emerging researchers, Kellie acknowledges that a significant hurdle for those in her field is maintaining a balancing act whilst applying for and securing research funding. “It is challenging to balance your time between all the activities required to build a good track record and being at the lab bench doing the actual research!”

Even so, Kellie is optimistic and believes that “if you are passionate about your work and motivated to improve outcomes for cancer patients, then you will give yourself the best chance of success”.

When she’s not wearing her lab coat, Kellie can be found baking and tending to her indoor jungle of plants. She is also passionate about running and completed her first half-marathon in 2023.

“Writing grant applications takes a significant portion of time, which is why Cure Cancer’s new streamlined two-step application process was so excellent. We need more funding schemes like this that are targeted at emerging researchers. Funding them will ensure we don’t lose their valuable skills and enthusiasm, thereby fostering the next generation of bright scientists in Australia!”

Together, we can cure cancer.

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