Interview with David Bowtell

This article was originally published in issue 3 of the MMIM newsletter.

Professor David Bowtell is the Director for Research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Although Prof Bowtell studied veterinary science, he has never worked as a vet. Instead, he found himself in biomedical research, initially working as a cell biologist. Here he talks about his work and how the MMIM database can help.

The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, or ‘Peter Mac’, as it is affectionately called, is unique in Australia, with an all-inclusive approach to cancer treatment. It is a specialist cancer hospital, where research, support and care are fully integrated. As well as boasting one of the largest cancer research facilities, Peter Mac runs clinical trials and offers state-of-the-art services and care, including medical imaging. Peter Mac is the only centre of its kind in Australia, with very few similar institutions existing outside of the United States.

Prof Bowtell likens his position as Director to the ‘captain of a footy team’ – he has a leadership role but also needs to kick a few goals himself. As well as working in his own lab, he coordinates other aspects of the Centre, including writing grants for the research division as well as the genomics program specifically.

In addition to his role as Director, Prof Bowtell runs a large medical genomics laboratory, which has a focus on ovarian and gastric cancers as well as carcinoma of unknown primary (CUP). CUPs are cancers that do not have a known point of origin, but their sources can be detected by taking biospecimens and testing samples. One test that is extremely useful for CUPs is microarray testing, and it is this data that is present on the MMIM database.

Prof Bowtell became involved in MMIM through his lab. He feels that MMIM is important for cancer research as it allows scientists to gather clinical information, which can then be related to known genetic information. This facilitates the development of predictive models for oncology as well as for other areas.

His lab started working with spotted microarrays in 1999. They now use microarrays (specifically Affymetrix microarrays) to classify different cancers into patterns of gene expression. For example, the primary source of CUPs can be determined by using microarray technology to compare it to cancers with known primary locations.

Tumours from patients with the same type of cancer, but different outcomes, can also be compared to analyse for risk of reoccurrence of tumour formation after remission. This can help doctors plan long-term treatment, as an increased risk would indicate more aggressive treatment.

When asked about his thoughts on a ‘cure for cancer’, Prof Bowtell said that at Peter Mac, researchers are studying the molecular basis for different types of cancer. They are looking at the individual molecular pathways involved and treating each one separately. It seems that there are multiple cures for cancer, rather than the single one that we were previously searching for.

Molecular genetic information can help at all stages of cancer development: diagnosis; staging (determining how advanced the cancer is); planning treatment; implementing treatment; assessing family risks; and managing these family risks.

Peter Mac is involved in cutting-edge research into chemoprevention, which can be likened to vaccination – chemotherapy can be used to prevent cancer ever forming in high-risk patients. And while early detection of cancer is important, genetic information can indicate how aggressively to treat a tumour that has been found promptly. This type of individualised treatment may be the way of the future, and comprehensive organisation and sharing of the information, in a format such as MMIM, is a vital tool for this type of research.

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