Oesophageal cancer is one of the most deadly but least studied cancers worldwide. In Australia, the annual incidence of oesophageal cancer is projected to be 1,400 new cases a year with a projected annual mortality rate of 1,100. It’s a cancer which is hard to treat, as by the time it is detected, it is already in a late stage, chemotherapy is not effective and surgical possibilities are restricted.
A variety of life style factors including smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco chewing and oral sex (papilloma virus infection) increase the risk of oesophageal cancer. Oesophageal cancer is more common in men than women. The symptoms of this cancer include difficulty in swallowing, fatigue, weight loss, heart burn and indigestion. Identification of this disease at an early stage is important in the success of therapy.
Dr Smitha Georgy, a Senior Research Officer in the Epidermal Development Laboratory, has taken on the challenge of teasing out the factors involved in the initiation and progression of oesophageal cancer. Dr Georgy is interested in identifying the molecular changes in oesophageal cancer cells, with the aim of promptly diagnosing this cancer. She won a $100,000 grant from the Cure Cancer Australia Foundation (CCAF) to further investigate the mechanisms of oesophageal cancer progression, in particular identifying the signalling pathways that lead to unlimited proliferation of cells.
The research builds on the group’s earlier discovery of a gene, called Grainyhead-like 3 (GRHL3), which acts as a tumour suppressor in human skin cancer. Such fundamental research can begin to answer the questions, “What causes cancer?” and “What will stop a cancer growing?”, because it is mapping the complex traffic of signals to tell proteins to reproduce, to die, to interact with certain cell proteins and not others. Cancer cells are ‘immortal’, but is it that they do not have receptors for the signal which tells them to die, or do they recognise the signals but block them, or do they suppress or ‘down regulate’ those signals so they don’t get that traffic at all? The impact of the research can be linked to future drug designs to effectively treat oesophageal cancers.
Dr Georgy has a background is in Veterinary Science, ideal for working with and further refining the mouse models required for the study of molecular basis of oesophageal cancer. She started working with Professor Stephen Jane, Head of Department and Head of School, in 2009.See CCAF Media release for detail of award and funding partnerships.