THIS is a big play to dramatically change the way we look at breast cancer treatment. And Ballarat's homegrown cancer research team is going real big, aiming to tackle the most aggressive forms of breast cancer - like the triple-negative kind.
What this could mean is women, or men, no longer needing to have breast tissue removed. Possibly no hair loss, without the need for intense chemotherapy. Likely few side-effects.
In turn, this should help set the tone for effective treatment in all cancers.
Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute wants to crack what honourary director George Kannourakis terms a barcode - the unique make-up of proteins creating a fog about cancer cells and fending off the body's own immune system to attack.
To help expedite this, FECRI is launching a breast cancer research program.
FECRI is far from the only research facility working in this field but its internationally-renowned work in dissecting the immune system, particularly in other cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and ovarian cancer, are both complementary and offer the Institute a head start.
Professor Kannourakis wants Ballarat to play its role.
Existing immunotherapies can be, as he says, "a bit coarse" with only a couple of these proteins that mask cancer cells identified. A lot of patients tend to have a partial response.
The hunt is on for the masking proteins - Professor Kannourakis estimates there are only six to 10 in total, each in different arrangements and quantity on cancer cells.
We're going for the cure, the "full barcode".Professor George Kannourakis
"We believe (breast cancer research) can help us work out the barcode for the right formula of antibodies for individual patients, not just breast cancer patients," Professor Kannourakis said. "This doesn't mean we're spreading our resources too thing. We're looking at proteins already but we don't know the extent of the code until we look at this all together.
"...We're going for the cure, the "full barcode" - this will enable us to dial up the treatment to best match."
When Melbourne-based philanthropist Mary-Paula Williamson issued FECRI a challenge in breast cancer, Professor Kannourakis told her "we could do anything in Ballarat", with community support.
Community backing is what continues to build the institute from what was the dying wish of Ballarat teenager Fiona Elsey more than 20 years ago, into dynamic team with 11 senior scientific staff capturing attention on the global stage.
FECRI receives no government funding. The institute's major fundraiser is the annual Ballarat Cycle Classic and this is where its ambitious new drive is focused.
Ms Williamson put up enough funding for FECRI to secure an internationally recognised breast cancer researcher in Ballarat before February's Cycle Classic.
What happens next is up to us.
Professor Kannourakis and the board have issued a $300,000 target for the Cycle Classic to allow for a fully-fledged program - resources and equipment, research assistants and PhD candidates - from next year.
Every cent from entries in the Cycle Classic add to the tally. This totaled about $185,000 last summer but, with a new event and renewed push, Professor Kannourakis was confident in exceeding this.
There is also an urgency to breast cancer research, Professor Kannourakis said, due to the fast rising incidents of the disease in women.
About 20,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Australia each year. Professor Kannourakis said diagnoses had increased almost 40 per cent in the past 40 years, largely due to an ageing population.
Breast cancer is also the second biggest cancer killer in women with more than 3,100 female deaths each year in Australia. It can also occur in men.
We need a different attitude to treatment. This has implications for early detection as well.Professor George Kannourakis
"We need a different attitude to treatment. This has implications for early detection as well," Professor Kannourakis said. "We're setting goals, which we need to do if we want something new. We can do it."
Registrations for Ballarat Cycle Classic on February 16 are open: ballaratcycleclassic.com.au.
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