Unlocking the mysteries of Melanoma

Dr Nikola Bowden, recipient of the 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Award, is investigating DNA repair to unlock the mysteries of melanoma and provide new hope for patients world-wide.

Nikola BowdenAs a molecular biologist at University of Newcastle, Dr Nikola Bowden appreciates the importance of scientific process, but as a researcher she has also learnt the value of trusting her instincts. It was a gut feeling that prompted Bowden to pursue a line of research that has consequently shifted the central dogma around the role of DNA repair in melanoma development and provided a possible explanation for why the disease is largely resistant to chemotherapy.

Bowden's breakthrough paper on nucleotide expression repair in melanoma, published in the journal Cancer Research in 2010, was the first to report on the relationship between DNA repair pathways and chemotherapy resistance in melanoma.

"Chemotherapy usually works by attacking the DNA of a cancer cell and damaging it so badly that it dies. Normally, the DNA repair pathway in a cell will either fix the damage, as it does when we get sunburnt, or 'tell' a cell to die when the damage is extreme. But in melanoma this pathway is dysfunctional, so chemotherapy has little or no effect and the cancerous cells continue to accumulate damage and grow."

Because the same DNA repair pathway fixes damage to cells from sunlight, Bowden is now pursuing the hypothesis that dysfunction in the pathway could increase susceptibility to melanoma.

"I was surprised to find that no one had pursued this line of research before – it is almost as if it had been dismissed because it was too obvious," Bowden remarks.

After the initial research phase, Bowden turned to patients for feedback and it was at this point that her research project took another turn.

"We presented our findings to a patient consultation group, who asserted that we should now focus on using the research to improve treatment, and so we did. We've used the initial research on DNA repair to successfully prove that certain drugs could be used to switch the patient's DNA repair back on and hopefully trigger the immune system to help fight the cancerous cells."

The initial findings in Bowden's research are promising and the project is beginning to attract the attention of pharmaceutical companies.

"We found that using a combination of drugs in a staged approach would have the least impact on the patient. We are using the same drugs that have been around for 30-40 years, we are simply using them for a new purpose and the results are looking positive."

To ensure the drugs are suitable for clinical trials, Bowden collaborates with Dr Andre van der Westhuizen, a melanoma oncologist who also happens to be based in the Hunter.

"I met Dr van der Westhuizen at the International Melanoma Congress in Philadelphia. On our return to Australia, he started meeting with us fortnightly. His feedback has helped shape the research and he will now run clinical trials for a small number of people who have no alternative treatments."

If successful, the treatment will offer new hope to melanoma patients world-wide providing a more effective and affordable solution. With 132,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year, Bowden and her team could revolutionise the treatment of melanoma around the world.

Bowden's research project is supported by the Cancer Institute NSW  Cure Cancer Australia Foundation and the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI).

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