The breast cancer researcher

Interview with Dr Kirsty Brown Breast cancer researcher.

“It’s important to empower women with knowledge so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This knowledge can then also be passed on to the next generation and hopefully we can curb the occurrence of cancer in the future.” Dr Kristy Brown.


If it were not for the millions of dollars ordinary Australians help raise through the Mothers Day Classic, Dr Kristy Brown couldn’t continue her imperative work.

My daughter and I walk the ‘Classic,’  each year and I wanted to get to the bottom of where the funds go.

Happy to introduce star of the lab, Dr Kristy Brown…


Martine Harte: Your research would not be possible if it wasn’t for the masses of good-hearted people who participate in the Mother’s Day Classic each year would it?


Dr Kristy Brown: Definitely not! The Mother’s Day Classic raises millions of dollars that go directly to breast cancer research through the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Times are tough for researchers, not only in Australia but all over the world, with decreased government funding for research meaning that there is a risk of discoveries being lost. The NBCF has ensured that we keep breast cancer research alive.


Can you tell us what is the funded research you are doing at the moment?


Dr Kristy Brown:  We are exploring potential new molecular links between obesity and breast cancer. We know that the hormone estrogen is involved in making most breast cancers grow. Mid-life women are the ones who tend to develop breast cancer and we know that in these women, oestrogen produced by breast fat is a likely culprit, with obesity, levels of oestrogen in the breast fat are increased. We are also using our discoveries to try to identify new therapies for breast cancer. Not only obesity-related breast cancers, but also those that are harder to treat. We hope to be able to find safer therapies for women and improve their quality of life following a breast cancer diagnosis.


You’ve shown the link is especially strong in women who have gone through menopause?


Dr Kristy Brown: Yes, it’s almost counter-intuitive to think that breast tumours are growing in women who have very low oestrogen levels in their blood, but what we have recently found is that estrogen-producing proteins are elevated in the breast fat of women after menopause and this is even more dramatic in obese older women.

You mention Ghrelin, we hear a lot about gut health, I’m curious to hear what scientists make of it, in fact I’m drinking my cup of bone broth as we speak-am I crazy? (laughs)

Dr Kristy Brown: Not crazy! The reason we hear more and more about gut health in the public is that this is also a major area of interest in the research community. Gut bacteria have been implicated in anything from obesity to cardiovascular disease to cancer! Ghrelin is a hormone produced by the stomach that increases appetite. We have found that it decreases estrogen production in breast fat cells and also decreases the growth of breast cancer cells in the lab and in pre-clinical models. Not only does it have effects in hormone-dependent cancers, but we are also seeing some effects in more difficult to treat breast cancers.


2/3rds of Australian women are obese, why is that such a warning light?


Dr Kristy Brown: It is now clear that obesity is associated with so many diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer, including breast cancer. This population of women will also get older and their risk of breast cancer after menopause will be higher. Not only that, but if they do develop breast cancer, they are less likely to respond to therapy and die from their disease.


You say we can’t just look at BMI as a measure of metabolic health, it’s how the fact is distributed?


Dr Kristy Brown: Yes. More tummy fat is associated with poorer metabolic health and higher risk of cancer. BMI is a measure of someone’s weight and height, but does not account for how the fat is distributed. We even see some women who have what is considered a healthy BMI, have signs of metabolic dysfunction and have higher levels of the protein that makes estrogen in the breasts. It’s important to better understand this in order to be able to intervene and decrease the number of breast cancer cases that will occur in the future.


So wonderful to see more female scientists being given a platform, three years go this site was one of the only pop culture platforms celebrating women in science. Why do you think they are gaining more of a voice?


Dr Kristy Brown: I think that more scientists in the media is definitely a reflection of women having a prominent place in science and being important contributors. I think that women, all scientists for that matter, also feel compelled to talk about why science and research is important. This keeps focus on an industry that has so much to give and I hope that it also helps show the next generation how amazing science actually is.


What does this field mean for you personally, it must be difficult telling women that being overweight can lead to cancer?


Dr Kristy Brown: It is so hard. We all have people around us that struggle with weight. Speaking to women who have cancer or have had cancer is especially hard because there is evidence that being overweight or obese can affect their treatment. Losing weight is not easy. I also feel that it is important to empower women with knowledge so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This knowledge can then also be passed on to the next generation and hopefully we can curb the occurrence of cancer in the future.


There is also separate research surrounding ‘breaking-fast’ many women it seems are eating too late at night. Realise your work was embedded within this study, but can you tell us more about this?


Dr Kristy Brown: This study out of San Diego showed that, for women who had had breast cancer, having less than 13 hours between their last meal and breakfast the next morning increased their risk of recurrence. This highlights an important potential link between hunger, eating, diet and breast cancer. Who knows, ghrelin which is increased with fasting may be involved! 


You can still register for tomorrow’s event from 6am. Find your nearest event details over here: 

Dr Brown has been awarded one of 5 Mother’s Day Classic NBCF research grants that resulted from the $3.1million raised at last year’s event.

She’s currently NBCF Career Development Fellow Head, Metabolism & Cancer Laboratory
Hudson Institute of Medical Research.


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