Behind the science: Dr Sue Heatley

Behind the science: Dr Sue Heatley

“Knowing that this research is valued and supported means so much because it means that we can do this work and potentially save lives.”

Dr Sue Heatley said she cried when she first received funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project in 2016.

A leading scientist at the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), her research focuses on the genomic landscape of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in adolescents with the aim of improving patient outcomes through personalised medicine.

“Funding is so hard to come by in Australia,” she said. “Knowing that this research is valued and supported means so much because it means that we can do this work and potentially save lives.”

A targeted approach

Dr Heatley is in the process of screening genetic samples of almost every ALL patient in Australia with the aim of finding genetic changes that can lead to an effective treatment for adolescents with the disease. In many cases, these patients will be treated with currently available targeted therapies.

There are approximately 300 diagnoses of ALL in Australia each year. Dr Heatley and the ALL team at SAHMRI have screened about 125 genetic samples this year. She describes it as an intensive process with each sample taking about three weeks to screen due to the variety of tests required.

“What I'm hoping to find is a patient who may have unfortunately relapsed and then go right down to the single cell level to see what changes have occurred since their diagnosis and why they might have relapsed,” said Dr Heatley.

"I'm essentially looking to see if there is a genetic change that we can then target in adolescents.”

Dr Heatley said treatment for adolescents with ALL can be challenging.

“I'm particularly looking at younger adolescents and there is often an uncertainty of whether to treat them with kids’ protocols or with adult protocols,” she said. “They almost fall through the gaps.”

The road to science

When Dr Heatley was completing her final year of high school, she never imagined that she would one day become a leading cancer researcher.

She took a job as a nurse attendant at the Red Cross Blood Bank in Adelaide straight out of school and eventually moved into Blood Bank’s laboratory where her love of science was sparked.

“I went on to study my undergraduate degree part time while I was working full time at the Blood Bank and then commuted to Melbourne University from Adelaide for my PhD because that’s where the best supervisor was located. It was hard going, but I got there.”

After completing her PhD in 2010, Dr Heatley was awarded a New Investigator Scholarship by the Haematology Society of Australia & New Zealand to undertake a visiting fellow position at the St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital Memphis. While there, she began studying genetic coding changes in adolescents with ALL and has continued this study at SAHMRI.

From bench to bedside

The process of discovery ignited Dr Heatley’s interest in science during her days at the Blood Bank and it continues to drive her today.

“Discovering the gene that's gone wrong, working out how that might affect the progression of cancer or how we could use a different drug to stop it is so important,” she said.

These are things that we couldn’t do before the deep gene sequencing approach that has really only developed in the past five to ten years.

Sue describes her work as “translational”.

“It’s bench-to-bedside in that we’re trying to understand what's going wrong with a gene in a lab setting and then how can we fix it in a clinical setting,” she said.

A key part of Dr Heatley’s research is identifying different drugs that may be used to treat ALL.

“We’re mostly using drugs that are currently available, but they might not be specifically for the purpose of treating ALL,” she said.

"One drug in particular has been used for close to 20 years in chronic myeloid leukaemia and it's targeting the same gene as we’re targeting in ALL. It's now being trialled in ALL but it was not originally designed for that disease. It will lead to improvements in response and long-term outcomes in this group of ALL patients.”

The Kids’ Cancer Project is continuing to fund Dr Heatley’s vital research.

“The funding means everything, especially coming from a completely philanthropic organisation like The Kids' Cancer Project,” said Dr Heatley.

“We are not funded by the government, so without it we actually don't have any means of continuing this research,” she added. “It’s a real game changer.”

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