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Holly has a winning idea in DNA cancer research

Published:04 October 2021

Holly Hosking

Holly Hosking

CQUniversity PhD student Holly Hosking has garnered attention at this year’s Visualise Your Thesis (VYT) competition and progressed to the international final for her research on novel ways to identify cancer risk.

As winner of the 2021 CQUniversity VYT local competition, Ms Hosking is also in the running for the Trending on VYT viewers’ choice competition for views on her 60-second audio-visual pitch Development of a cell-based assay to predict pathophysiologies; focusing on cancer susceptibility

Her thesis explores the possibility of utilising DNA repair capacity to give individualised cancer risk scores. This is based on how well someone’s DNA repair mechanism’s function, rather than the presence of a cancer-causing genetic mutation.

“Currently the gold standard of testing is through genetic screening. This looks for mutations (typos) within the genetic code that would make someone more at risk of developing cancer, but as only between five and 10 per cent of cancers are due to inherited mutations, genetics are somewhat limited in determining cancer risk for the vast population,” Ms Hosking said.

“The major finding of my research, which is the focus of my Visualise Your Thesis entry, is the significant differences in DNA repair capacity between participants that had early-onset cancers and those that had not."

She explained that her DNA repair tests could create a reliable guide to the likely onset of cancer and help place those at risk in early intervention screening and prevention programs.

“In my participant cohort, 50 per cent of people that did not effectively repair their laboratory inflicted DNA damage within one hour had a history of cancer development before age 50; compared to just one in 20 of the individuals that repaired their DNA effectively.

“I identified that for one in two negative DNA repairers that earlier cancer screening is needed as by age 50, one in two of the inefficient DNA repairers would have had cancer prior to many screening protocols commencing, for example, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program,” Ms Hosking said.

“Another example of where my research could be implemented is in identifying women that would benefit from earlier breast screening.

“Whilst Breast Screen Queensland allows women to get screened from age 40, formal invitations into the program aren’t sent until age 50. In individuals that have inefficient DNA repair and are more likely to have an early onset cancer, early screening could save their lives.”

Looking to the future, the Rockhampton-based researcher hopes to further develop her DNA repair tests.

“I have always been fascinated by the human body and have a strong interest in the mechanisms underlying disease. What drew me to my research topic was a curiosity as to why some people seem like they can do everything right, such as eating healthy and being active, and still develop early-onset cancers - yet others can smoke for 50 years and live to 100 years old and be cancer-free.

“As my research was completed in a relatively small cohort, I hope to receive additional funding to expand my work to thousands of participants, so I have substantial evidence to one day influence changes in National Cancer Screening protocols.”

Ms Hosking advocated for the VYT as a great platform to help achieve her goals, both through research awareness and a $2000 grant.

“I first decided to enter VYT to disseminate my research findings to a broader audience and to learn to explain my research in a succinct manner, but receiving the support grant means I can also complete additional research through a small additional ‘proof of concept’ experiment.

“I’m currently waiting on some final results from an RNA sequencing experiment. If I identify a pathway not previously linked to DNA repair, I will set up a cell culture experiment to block the pathway to prove that it is involved in effective DNA repair," Ms Hosking said

“It feels surreal to be representing CQUniversity and Australia in the international final. It is definitely a highlight of my Research Higher Degree journey."

The final will be held online and is hosted by the University of Melbourne. This year there are 25 finalists from six countries, the biggest competition by VYT to date.

The 2021 competition gallery is currently available for viewing with the most views recorded between 4-10 October set to be awarded a prize.