Leading breast cancer researcher: Professor Jane Visvader

Professor Jane Visvader is one of the world’s leading breast cancer researchers and joint head of stem cells and cancer research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. She is at the forefront of giving women carrying the faulty BRCA1 gene, a precursor to breast cancer, preemptive treatment choices beyond the surgically invasive options of a mastectomy or oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).

Her impressive career spans various areas of science but a remarkable opportunity in 1998 led to her blazing the path of breast cancer treatment she’s on today.

Speaking with Catherine Robson in this week’s Success Story, Jane talks about what it’s like to work alongside her husband, the scientific setbacks she’s faced, and her advice for young scientists.

Jane’s science career has been a diverse one. Carrying out her her PhD on plant viroids in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide, she then transitioned to molecular regulators in leukemia, holding the position of Research Associate/Instructor at the Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

In 1998 Jane’s focus changed to breast cancer after she and her husband, Professor Geoff Lindeman, were recruited back to Melbourne with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research to set up a ground-breaking breast cancer research initiative.

Part of a collaborative initiative funded by the Victorian State Government, it was a remarkable opportunity for Jane, one that proved to be pivotal in her career.

For the last 19 years, Jane and Geoff, a clinician-scientist, have been working to understand how cancerous cells differ from healthy breast tissue. Together they lead the Stem Cells and Cancer Division at Walter and Eliza Hall institute of Medical Research.

Sharing a workspace and leadership role with a partner may not be everyone’s ideal, but things run pretty smoothly for Jane and Geoff. Their complementary skills have helped them lead the team to some exciting medical breakthroughs with Jane across all the different lab projects and Geoff more involved with patients, bringing a strong clinical perspective to their work.

In 2016 the team announced they were closing in on the ‘holy grail’ of breast cancer, prevention in high-risk women who carry a faulty BRCA1 gene. Carriers of a faulty BRCA1 gene have an elevated genetic risk of developing aggressive breast cancer.

A global media spotlight has shone on BRCA1 in recent years when Angelina Jolie opted for a double mastectomy and an oophorectomy because she carried the gene.

If women with the gene mutation hope to reduce the chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer, currently they have limited options past surgical removal of breast tissue and ovaries, often a confronting and difficult decision.

It’s Jane’s mission to open-up options for women carrying the faulty BRCA1 gene beyond invasive preemptive surgery. The BRCA1 breakthrough announced in 2016 came after the team managed to pinpoint the cells that give rise to breast cancer in women who have inherited the faulty gene.

“It offers a promise that we will be able to prevent, or at least delay, breast cancer arising in these women that carry mutations. In the very least it would buy them time, especially young women. Young women tend to develop BRCA1 associated cancers and they’re quite aggressive. It would buy them time in having to make decisions about surgery to remove their breasts and ovaries,” explains Jane.

Their team may be standing at the edge of a scientific breakthrough that could be life-changing for women with a cancer diagnosis, but it’s been a long journey and not without setbacks. In 2000 they began a quest for evidence to show an isolated breast stem cell was capable of giving rise to an entire breast.

After 3 years of experiments, 500 of 500 transplants showed no evidence to support their theory, challenging them to rethink the direction of their tests. “That was a pretty dismal moment and we had to rethink, ‘do we pursue this project, do we give up?’. But we decided to change a couple of things in the tissue preparation, to change enzymes, use less active ones and it made all the difference. It was a eureka moment when we showed that a single cell could give rise to the entire breast tissue and I’m glad we didn’t succumb to our feelings prior to that!” says Jane.

Jane’s leadership has been recognised both within and beyond the scientific world. Westpac named her in the inaugural 100 Women of Influence Awards and The Australian Academy of Science inducted her as a fellow in 2012.

Her advice to young scientists hoping to blaze a world-changing scientific trail? “Remain true to yourself and be very rigorous. Don’t cut corners, to me, it’s still the number one thing I keep in mind each day. Just don’t cut the corners, carry out everything with rigour.” Advice that’s clearly served this award-winning scientist well.

Listen to the full interview to hear Jane share how her lab are applying cutting edge technologies understand the complex nature of breast cancer.