Dr Heather Lee moved to Sydney and then Cambridge to advance her study of genetics, only to find herself “about five minutes” from her childhood home of New Lambton Heights pursuing her most promising work yet.
The cancer research fellow at the Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastle has received one of two $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia for “early-career leadership” in the field of stem-cell science.
The award recognises Dr Lee’s work in creating a method of identifying rare and “rogue” cancer cells, which she believes may help scientists develop new ways of killing cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy.
“One of the big problems with treating cancer is that the cancer can change and it can come back,” Dr Lee said.
“When a cancer returns this is thought to be driven by rare cancer cells that have special properties that allow them to survive initial chemotherapy.
“We want to study these real cells using single cell analysis, and hopefully identify new ways of stopping cancers from coming back.”
Dr Lee’s current research into an aggressive form of blood cancer, called acute myeloid leukaemia, uses a technique she developed with colleagues in Cambridge to read the genetic sequence of individual cells.
The method also identifies “chemical flags” that govern which parts of the sequence the cell uses to function.
“The thing about this technique is that we can study one cell at a time, whereas previously we had to study thousands of cells at a time. So now we can see differences between individual cells,” Dr Lee said.
The technique was particularly pertinent to cancer research, she said, because cancer cells often have chemical markers in the wrong place when compared to surrounding tissue.
“The chemical flags make sure the cell’s doing the job it’s meant to be doing,” she said.
“So the cell starts misbehaving or starts growing more rapidly or failing to perform the proper function.”
Dr Lee is currently using her ability to study the diversity in leukaemia cells to understand why some cells are resistant to treatment.
“No one has had the opportunity to look at how individual cells respond to the drug until now,” she said.
The Merewether High School alumnus said she felt “privileged” to conduct the research in her hometown.
“We have quite a bit of freedom here and the strength of research in Newcastle is that it’s relatively simple to work with clinicians,” she said.
“Personally, I had a daughter in the UK and it just makes a world of difference to be back home close to two sets of grandparents.”