Telethon Kids' Institute
Dr Bree Foley of the Telethon Kids Institute at the University of WA (UWA) has been interested in immunology – the study of the body’s immune system – since she started her undergraduate career at UWA in 2000. “I find it fascinating how intricate the immune system is and how it works constantly to keep us from harm,” she says.
Bree is excited that harnessing of the body’s own resources to fight cancer is, increasingly, becoming a clinical reality. Her research is focused on understanding how scientists can support the human body to do it. In particular, she’s interested in a “subset” of cells known as natural killers (NK) which help the immune system to reject tumours.
“When NK cells are found actively working in tumour sites, there’s an improvement in the survival of patients, as well as a reduced risk of the cancer recurring,” she explains. “If I’m able to identify which NK cell subset is best at eliminating cancer, we can develop a therapy to treat patients in the clinic.”
Born in 1982, Bree studied at UWA and received her PhD there in 2008. She also did post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota in 2009 for four years, focusing on patients who had received stem cell transplants for the treatment of leukaemia and other blood cancers.
One of her most recent achievements relates to the study of people who’ve been exposed to a common viral infection known as cytomegalovirus. Bree has been able to identify that, in patients who’ve been exposed to this virus, the number of NK cells expand. This has reduced the risk of leukaemia returning and improved survival in patients who’ve had transplants.
“I’m looking at how cytomegalovirus activates NK cells and which of these have the greatest potential to eliminate cancer and how they interact with other immune cells,” she says.