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A Deakin research scholarship is allowing Jennifer Squire to fulfil two important goals – to obtain her PhD while looking to find a cure for breast cancer.
“When I finished my honours, I knew I wanted to go on towards a PhD – and I knew the area I wanted to work in,” she said.
“I also knew that without a research scholarship that couldn’t happen so I put my application in.
“I can remember the excitement and I guess also the relief when I learned I had won a scholarship.”
Although still in the early stages of PhD, Jennifer is already making her mark.
She came a highly-regarded second in the final of the University’s Three Minute Thesis competition.
“That was a fantastic experience for me,” she said.
“My research is into something about which I feel very passionate, finding a cure for breast cancer.
“To be able to showcase it in such a high profile way, and to have been lucky enough to have caught the eye of the judges, that was pretty exciting.
“I learned a lot from that experience.”
Jennifer’s presentation was titled: “A Promising drug delivery system for the treatment of Breast Cancer.”
“At the moment, there is no cure, only treatments like chemotherapy, that plough through the body like a bulldozer, destroying everything in their path - including healthy tissue,” she said.
“However, what if we could selectively destroy just the cancerous cells so that healthy tissue was left alone?
“That’s where my research comes in – I am aiming to develop a chemotherapy drug delivery system that will only target and destroy cancer cells.”
Cancer dominates over healthy cells because it grows very rapidly without any constraints. It does this by growing lots of tiny little blood vessels from one pre-existing vessel. However, this results in a tangled web of blood vessels, much like the roots of a weed, that are leaky, which allows particles of a certain size to easily pass through the walls of the blood vessel and into the tumour tissue.
“Liposomes and micelles, which are nano-sized particles, are the perfect size to do this,” Jennifer says.
“So imagine if we put a current chemotherapy agent inside a liposome or micelle that would then act like a biological vehicle, driving the chemotherapeutic to the tumour whilst also shielding and protecting the surrounding healthy tissue from being harmed.
“Being the perfect size this vehicle will have no trouble getting into the tumour cells and releasing a high dose of the chemotherapy it is carrying directly into the heart of the tumour.
“Breast cancer tumours also over-express hormone receptors that ‘grab’ hormones, like estrogen from the blood stream, allowing the tumour to keep growing rapidly.
“As a chemist I am trying to make a range of liposomes and micelles that have a chemotherapy agent, Tamoxifen, attached to the outside. The special thing about Tamoxifen is that it works by mimicking the hormone estrogen, so the receptor will grab and pull it into the tumour by mistake.
“This is helpful as it acts like a GPS for our liposome, guiding it directly into the tumour where it can release a second dose of the different type of chemotherapy agent that it is carrying.
“This double barreled delivery system has the potential to deliver a high dose of chemotherapy directly into breast cancer tumours whilst also minimising side effects.
“So with my research, the very thing that gives cancer the competitive edge over our healthy cells could also ultimately bring about its demise.”
Jennifer is part of a new generation of Deakin researchers: those who are able to do their post graduate and post doctorate work in the place where they grew up.
“Obviously, if I had to, I would have left Geelong to further my career,” said Jennifer, who went to the local Western Heights High School before in University.
“But having a University like Deakin with its fast-growing research activities in a wide range of areas, and especially in my area of chemistry, it’s just fantastic.
“We have some pretty amazing people working here, including my PhD supervisor, Dr Luke Henderson.
“It is a privilege to be part of the research team he has put together.
“We can have a bit of fun together as we get on with the serious business of doing our research.
“It is a great environment to work in.
“I am very grateful Deakin has given me this opportunity and I would encourage anyone else who has the opportunity to grab it.
“Even though I haven’t moved a long way from home yet, coming to Deakin has been the best move of my life!”