'Breast Cancer Screening Should Be Easier And I Have A Plan'

From migrant to medical pioneer -- a determined, young woman's journey to save lives.

What you need to know
  • A young scientist has discovered a blood test that can detect early breast cancer
  • Free mammograms are currently used to screen for breast cancer but aren't available to all women
  • Clinical trials of the blood test are the next step but the test could be available to doctors as early as 2020
  • The woman behind the science says she's helping break stereotypes

When Dharmica Mistry immigrated to Australia with her parents, she was a young girl,  nervous about starting a new life in country where she didn't know anybody. She never imagined a country affectionately dubbed the 'land of opportunity' would give her an opportunity to help save lives.

The 32-year-old microbiologist has an ambitious plan that would see blood test screening for breast cancer available as early as 2020. The young scientist believes the medical fraternity needs a quicker route to detect the disease which affects one in eight Australian women.

"This is a new way to screen for or diagnose breast cancer. It's much easier, it would be more accessible because it's a blood test and people routinely do blood tests, " Mistry said.

Australia has a national mammographic breast cancer screening program that is free and available every two years for women aged 40 and over.

Mammograms are available every two years to all Australian women aged 40 and over. IMAGE: Getty Images

"Mammography is limited by a number of factors, the results can be hindered by a woman's breast density, so if a woman's breast is dense it is less likely to show a tumour.

Also it's only available for women over 40, so it doesn't capture women my age who can get quite aggressive breast cancer. Also regional or rural women often don't have access to mammogram technology," she told ten daily.

Only a little over half of the eligible population use the free mammogram test.

"So even if you do meet all of the criteria and have access in a regional area, only 54 percent of these women are actually getting a mammogram and it's not good enough," she said.

 In 2010, the former University of Sydney student made the breakthrough association between a person’s fat profile (lipids) and breast cancer.

While studying the link between breast cancer and hair, she found that sufferers of the disease have alterations in the levels of phospholipids in their bloodstream, meaning a simple blood test could reveal the cancer’s presence.

Dharmica Mistry working in a lab. IMAGE: University of Sydney

It's been several years since the initial discovery which Mistry says is the "fun part" of science, but the journey afterwards is often long and complex.

"With science you have to evaluate what you are doing, again and again. We have been going back and re-testing, we need to validate everything and work out how best to transfer this knowledge and findings in the lab into the real world. We need to make it accessible and scaleable."

This includes undertaking clinical trials and getting approval from Australia's drug regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration.  Misty and her colleagues at the small start-up company she helped establish, will begin  trials of the early detection blood test in the next few months.

Dharmica Mistry says its important for migrants to give back. IMAGE: TransferWise Faces of Australia campaign

She says her experience is an example of the limitless potential of careers for women in science.

"In science and technology there are not a lot of role models here in Australia and we should have more STEM pioneers to create change and have impact," she said.

And she refuses to be pigeonholed.

"I think I help challenge science stereotypes around age, gender and ethnicity. I still carry my [Indian] culture in the way I look and my name but I also do important work in science."

A Galaxy Research survey released this week and commissioned by international money transfer service TransferWise, found that despite the majority of Australians seeing the benefits of migration, more than half (55 percent) don't believe it should be easier to migrate to Australia. 

Mistry said her success is also a tale of migrant opportunities and the important contribution they make.

"Migrants need to keep showing they are adaptable and demonstrate how they are giving back.  In my experience, people can't help  but respond well to that."