Dr Dharmica Mistry has spent the past eight years researching and developing a simple blood test for breast cancer. The new diagnostic test will be available to people of all ages, replacing mammograms, the most common tool currently used for early detection that is limited to women over the age of 50 (breast tissue is less dense from that age, so the scans reveal more).
The young scientist’s research is good news for the 15,900 women and 150 men who are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia each year.
Mistry, who in March was named NSW Young Woman of the Year for 2016, began researching breast cancer after graduating from the University of Sydney in 2007 with a major in microbiology. Her first job was studying the association between the disease and human hair. Mistry discovered that women with breast cancer have higher levels of phospholipids (a type of fat) in their bloodstream and this can be detected in hair.
“I was testing with my own hair in negative control experiments and one day the feature that implies you’ve got breast cancer was popping up in my hair pattern. Up to this point, the association between the disease and hair was not understood,” she explains. “I realised that every couple of months I put olive oil in my hair to condition it and olive oil is a lipid. It was a very revolutionary moment for us because the penny dropped and we said, ‘OK, this is what it is’.”
You’re always asking ‘why’ so you can find the next logical step toward a solution, and when you find that solution, you iterate. That’s essentially how we approach everything.
Mistry set up BCAL Diagnostics in 2010 with the sole aim of pursuing this research. If the high level of lipids were detectable in hair, she believed they would also be present in blood. The company wants to develop a reliable BCAL (Breast Cancer Associated Lipids) test that everyone can use.
The results are looking promising – the past 100 samples have shown an accuracy of 90 per cent and the test is due to undergo large-scale clinical trials over the next year.
In its early stages, Mistry says, the blood test will be used in addition to mammograms for early breast cancer detection.
“It really needs to find its legs and show that it can do what it says it can do before it can be a standalone screening tool,” she explains. “But the vision is that it will provide a screening test for women of all ages in all areas – remote, rural or in outreach programs. Mammograms are really expensive so it would change the paradigm.”
Asking questions is an essential part of her job, she says. “You’re always asking ‘why’ so you can find the next logical step toward a solution, and when you find that solution, you iterate. That’s essentially how we approach everything.”
Mistry views science as being a platform for change. “Cancer has touched people’s lives everywhere. I see this as a chance to do some really impactful research.”