A Young Researcher’s Inspiration – Christopher DiFelice
In the first year of his breast cancer research PhD, Christopher DiFelice can’t imagine what it might be like having a loved one diagnosed with breast cancer. Christopher has recently joined the Breast Cancer Research Unit at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research led by Professor Andreas Evdokiou. He hopes that one day the research he is a part of will stop the heartache that too many people experience as a result of breast cancer. His particular research focus is on understanding how and why breast cancer spreads to others parts of the body- specifically the lungs.
“I’ve been blessed in that none of the women in my life have been touched by this disease,” said Christopher.
“But knowing that we’re here every day trying our best so we can one day more effectively treat people who do suffer is really satisfying.
“It motivates me to know that we’re doing all we can do, and giving these patients hope. I think that’s the most important thing.”
What happens when breast cancer spreads?
Sadly once breast cancer spreads the chances of it being deadly are quite high. There’s been a lot of work that’s been done dealing with the primary tumour in the breast and we’ve come a long way in treating that with surgical resection which leads to a cure in most cases. However, I think when we look at the secondary site – when the cancer begins to spread to other organs in the body – that’s when it becomes a real issue. We don’t really have the same level of understanding of this compared to the primary tumour. So I am investigating what factors are involved in the spread of cancer cells.
What does your research involve?
One of the main things I’ll be studying is organ fibrosis; a build-up of collagens that eventually lead to scar tissue. We want to look at whether fibrosis increases the chances of breast cancer spreading. So basically whether a fibrotic environment in the lungs allows the circulating cancer cells to ‘home’ into a site. Fibrosis can cause some debilitating complications especially when it happens in the lung; it causes a build-up of scar tissue which can lead to the lungs not getting enough oxygen into the bloodstream. This makes it very difficult for the person to breathe; it essentially leads to the impairment of organ function that can erode a patient’s life very quickly.
Along with the other goals of the Breast Cancer Research Unit, if we can identify the relevance of fibrosis, we may potentially be able to reduce the potential for breast cancer spread and in turn save many more patients from suffering with secondary breast cancer.