L'Oreal Fellowship winner seeks to understand breast cancer

August 24, 2010

A desire to understand how breast cancer starts has seen Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat today win one of three 2010 L'Oreal Australia For Women in Science Fellowships.

Dr Asselin-Labat, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the institute's Stem Cells and Cancer division in Melbourne, Australia, is rapidly establishing an international profile for her studies of how breast stem cells develop and how these cells are influenced by oestrogen and other steroids.

In 2006 she was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team that discovered breast stem cells - a discovery that represented a major shift in the way scientists thought breast cancer developed.

Breast stem cells are critical to normal breast development, but if the breast becomes cancerous the stem cells are likely to be contributing to the problem. Dr Asselin-Labat has been meticulously unravelling how and why. In a series of high-impact scientific papers she has revealed how these breast stem cells develop into the wide range of cells found in a normal breast and how some cells are more likely to become aggressive cancer cells.

In March this year she was the first author on a Nature paper revealing that oestrogen and other steroids can control the function of breast stem cells.

"We found out how oestrogen and other steroids can influence mammary stem cells. It's via an indirect mechanism important in understanding how stem cells proliferate, and it could lead to new treatments for breast cancer," she said.

Dr Asselin-Labat now hopes to find out more about how breast cancer progresses and why breast cancer sometimes returns. "I want to understand how the cells metastasise. How do they migrate from the breast?"

Dr Asselin-Labat said she would use the $20,000 L'Oreal Fellowship to fund some technical help in the laboratory and pay her two young sons' childcare expenses. "The fellowship is a great honour and will help me maintain my work-life balance with my two boys," Dr Asselin-Labat said. "It will allow me to employ a laboratory assistant to maintain the team's productivity, it will help with childcare costs, and will support my participation in leadership training."
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Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientists have now received L'Oreal Australia For Women in Science Fellowships three years running. Dr Marnie Blewitt received a fellowship in 2009 for her research on epigenetics while Dr Erika Cretney won in 2008 for her studies of the immune system.

Dr Asselin-Labat's research is funded by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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