Jun 20, 2018

Meet Jean Berthelet from the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory

Tell us about what you study at the ONJCRI.

I am part of the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory and am studying the heterogeneity, or diversity, of breast cancer. We know that the cells within every patient’s tumour are different from each other, so we are focusing on trying to understand the biology of these different cells, why some cells metastasise (spread from their primary site) to different organs and resist treatment, and why others do not. Our strategy is to first understand how breast cancers work before we can find a way to target them by actually reaching the cells that are metastasing or resisting drug treatment.

What are you working on right now?

 We are developing new models to study tumour heterogeneity. To do so, we are tracking human tumour cells with unique ‘tags’ or ‘barcodes’ that we use as labels in order to follow their progression, as well as the behavior of these individual cells when they are resistant to drugs. We are also interested in understanding how much of this heterogeneity can be detected in liquid biopsies (blood samples). Our aim is to understand whether these non-invasive biopsies can be used to predict if patients will respond to certain drugs before they have even been treated.

How can these findings be practically applied in the treatment of breast cancer patients?

We are currently trying to apply our research findings directly to patient samples before testing current therapies and promising new drugs, meaning that we are actually ‘barcoding’ human cancers. This allows us to identify the cells that will cause the relapse of tumours in patients. We also perform genetic testing on these samples in order to understand the genes involved in the growth of the tumours and identify the drugs that can benefit these patients. 

What would this mean for breast cancer patients?

We are aiming with our work and the novel technologies that we are currently establishing to develop new strategies for personalised cancer treatments. We are hoping to be able to use liquid biopsies in providing new treatments for patients with advanced breast cancer, as well as best matching particular drug treatments to patients. We predict that the most effective treatments will probably involve a combination of several drugs and we believe that, by looking at the genetic profile of a large number of cancer cells within a woman’s breast cancer, we will be able to design more effective therapies.

When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in cancer research?

I have been involved in cancer research ever since completing my Masters Degree whilst living in France. There are many reasons for me choosing to work in cancer research. I think that it is very important and necessary for us as a society, but on a more personal note, many people around me have been affected by cancer. I did not initially focus on a particular type of cancer and I worked with many diseases, but I later decided to work specifically on breast cancer and that was actually the primary reason for me joining Dr Delphine Merino’s research group at the ONJCRI.

Why did you decide to focus on breast cancer research?

Breast cancer is very interesting for two reasons. Firstly, as we’ve discussed, it is heterogeneous and tumours have different ‘facets’. Each cell is unique and we still don’t know which ones will cause resistance to drugs. The other thing that I find very interesting is that there aren't any good treatments for patients with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer. I find these to be interesting challenges.

Why did you pursue your science career outside of your home country of France?

I at first moved to Germany from France after completing my PhD because I’ve always thought that it is very important in science to move to other countries and learn about different techniques and ways of conducting research. It also allowed me to meet people with different levels of expertise who could all contribute their specialized knowledge to understanding a particular disease. I continued my studies of thyroid cancer and patient samples alongside surgeons in Germany, which I found to be both interesting and challenging. 

I didn’t have any institutes in mind upon coming to Australia and I actually visited several laboratories before finally meeting Dr Merino. I was then given the chance to visit the ONJCRI and I quickly realized how unique this place is. I had never in the past seen any institute that integrated patient care in such an effective way, where researchers shared the floor with patients and doctors who they were on the same team as. I found it amazing and I don’t regret my choice. I’ve met lots of nurses and patients who have generously donated their tissues and this has been a unique experience. It has not only shown a ‘human’ perspective to what we do, but has also provided extraordinary motivation for me as a scientist.

What’s the hardest aspect of being a researcher?

The most challenging aspect of my work is dealing with the frustrations that come with the demanding molecular technologies that we are establishing in the laboratory. These technologies require lots of optimisations before they can produce useful results and I sometimes find it very hard to work on something that is very close to achieving these results, but is still not quite there yet. You have to be very persistent in this job and never give up. You can sometimes feel a little down if you have been trying a new technique for weeks without any positive outcome being shown, but when you do finally get an interesting result, it obviously comes with an immense satisfaction.

Flipping that question on its head, what do you love the most about being a researcher?

Honestly, it’s the fact that not a single day is the same as any before or after. You can’t predict what the next day will bring and you are constantly learning something new. I find the projects that we have developed here to be extremely interesting and it is amazing just talking to other people here about their work. What I really love about research is that you have to learn from your mistakes and results, modify your work based on experience, and then go further and further onwards - I think that this is great.

Learn more about the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory.