Dr Sudha Rao: a ‘revolution’ in cancer research | HerCanberra

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Dr Sudha Rao: a ‘revolution’ in cancer research

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It’s been a busy few months for Dr Sudha Rao, to say the least.

The leading cancer researcher and her team at the University of Canberra recently reached a major breakthrough in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, one of the leading causes of death from cancer in women.

By peeling apart the cancer stem cells (CSC’s) that cause cancer metastasis, Sudha and her team have discovered key proteins that cause the cells to tick. This has led to the development of novel drug therapy combination that blocks the cancer stem cells. Even more exciting is that the researchers believe that this new approach has the potential to eliminate both the cancerous tumour cells, and the CSC’s – meaning the cancer is gone for good.

Sudha Rao. Photo: University of Canberra

“We’ve now got a local and multi-national chemical trial underway for stage four metastatic breast cancer patients—the first of its kind worldwide,” Sudha says.

“It treats cancer cells which cause the metastasis to spread, and we’ll have the full outcome of the results early next year. It will hopefully make a huge difference to stage four patients, where there are currently very few treatments.”

When I speak with Sudha, she is about to board a plane to the United States to meet with a major immunotherapy company interested in the second big breakthrough she’s had, a blood test that allows oncologists to personalise treatment by predicting which treatment options will be most effective. It also means that patients can potentially have access to revolutionary advancements in immunotherapy.

“Unlike chemotherapy, which acts on the cancer cells leaving you with all the side effects, immunotherapy is helping the patient’s own immune cells to attack the cancer without the terrible side effects,” she says.

“Our lab tests can predict when patients are most likely to respond to the immunotherapy treatment, and we hope to progress toward clinical trials with patients very soon.”

Sudha Rao. Photo: University of Canberra

On Friday 2 November, Sudha will speak at the University of Canberra (UC) Women’s Celebration Breakfast at Pialligo Estate, which will raise money for the very cause she has been working so hard for.

“Many young women are being diagnosed and often the breast cancer is very aggressive. It’s there one day locally and the next day it’s spread, which is quite horrific.

“Unfortunately, chemotherapy is not always effective. We want to give more people more options, and more time.”

Sudha is focusing on breast cancer but believes the research outcomes can be applied to other aggressive cancers, such as pancreatic and ovarian cancer.

“For me, it was a personal journey from the point of view that I wanted to be able to tackle the areas that would make a difference for women,” she says.

“There is more funding in the area for breast cancer, but there hasn’t been much of a push in new treatments for many years. The more you get into this, the more you meet many special patients and realise where the gaps are; that the types of treatment that are available to women for breast cancer are limited.”

“The hope is that I will be able to say to people that there will be a cure—that your daughter, mum or your grandma will live. That’s what ultimately drives me and makes me able to do the long hours that are required of us.”

Born in India, Sudha lived in Melbourne and Italy before moving to the UK when she was nine. She completed her education in London and moved to Canberra 15 years ago to take up a position at ANU. Since 2010, she has been working with the University of Canberra in the faculty of Science and Technology, heading the translational epigenetic laboratory.

Sudha Rao as a child

“This is something I always had pictured as a child,” she says of her career.

“I always wanted to help people; I wanted to be a doctor.”

If you would like to support Sudha’s research and help improve survival rates and patient care for cancer sufferers, please do so by spreading the word on the research, hosting your own community fundraising event or donating to the UC Cancer Research Fund.

The University of Canberra will be hosting the annual Women’s Celebration Breakfast which raises vital funding for Sudha’s research. The breakfast is sold out for 2018.

Learn more about the research: www.canberra.edu.au/cancer-research

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Feature image: Sudha Rao photographed by Lori Cicchini of Loriana Fotografia

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