As Head of the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory at the Olivia Newton John Research Institute, Dr Delphine Marino hopes to achieve two things: Finding more effective treatments for breast cancer and supporting the next generation of young female researchers.

It was 2008 when Dr Delphine Merino packed her bags and headed to Australia to start her postdoc.  It was an exciting time for the young researcher who had just finished her PhD at the University of Burgundy in France.

“The time has gone really fast. I was always so fascinated by the biology of cells. Why some cells become malignant and start to form a tumour. So, after finishing University I decided on a PhD in Cancer Research. I came out to Australia for my first postdoc, then decided to stay for a second and here I am 14 years later.”

Not all cancer cells are equal

Delphine’s research is focused on understanding the fate of cancer cells. We know that while some cells respond well to treatment, other cells don’t and may spread to different areas of the body. By understanding why cancer cells vary and how different types of cells behave, we hope to prevent its recurrence, or propose better treatments if the disease returns, giving hope to the millions of women currently going through breast cancer treatment.

“Our research looks at the molecular properties of individual tumours, to understand why some cells are likely to be resistant to treatment and how we might be able to treat them.”

 “We are really trying to understand cells on an individual level to identify the different types of cells that make up a breast tumour. From here we can work out how that tumour might respond to different treatment options, if cancer cells will survive or not survive, which we hope will translate into better treatment options for patients.”

In 2021, Delphine’s team and colleagues published a significant study in Science Advances. The research, funded by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Komen, Cancer Australia, Cancer Council Victoria and Love Your Sister visualised cancer cells from triple negative breast cancer tumours.

“We used proteins derived from jellyfish and sea anemones to give colours to cancer cells within a tumour. Different cancer cells were allocated different colours so we could tell them apart, and then using microscopes we could study their behaviour.”

“We then treated the cells with two different drugs and were able to clearly see what types of cells were responding and what weren’t, but also, how the cells interacted with each other. We found that there’s complex relationships between cells in a tumor, they may influence each other.”

 “Understanding how the cells behave could help us design better combination therapies for patients. For instance, say a specific drug is working well on some cells but other cells escape and the disease returns. With this strategy, we can better understand what treatment the cells that are escaping might respond to, meaning we can propose efficient treatments to treat resistant cells.”

 “We are now continuing this work using different models and different drugs with the aim of finding better and more bespoke treatments for patients.”

“Tailored treatments for patients are what we are all moving towards. Being able to have someone diagnosed with breast cancer and instantly knowing what treatment will be the most effective is the ultimate goal.”


 The global impact on women

In 2020, there were 2.3 million people diagnosed with breast cancer around the globe and over 685,000 deaths. Every 60 seconds someone dies from breast cancer and 99% of those deaths are women.

Delphine talks passionately about how breast cancer research has changed over the years, transforming the way we treat cancer and improving survival rates and quality of life for women and their families.

 “When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we sometimes forget what impact it has on other areas of their health and wellbeing. It might affect fertility or lead to other health issues, so it can have multiple implications, that’s something we really need to change.”


Women supporting women

 In 2017, Delphine took up the position of Laboratory Head of the Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory at ONJCRI. Her experience has been a positive one, but she admits that while there are high numbers of women in early researcher roles, the numbers start to drop in more senior positions.

“I think there are several challenges. Finding the right work-life balance can be one of them, especially for women with caring responsibilities.”

 “It’s also quite competitive to secure senior roles, although there is an ongoing push to change the mindsets. Having more role models for younger researchers to look up may contribute to achieve this.”

 Delphine stresses that role models and mentors are crucial for changing things for the next generation of female scientists and she hopes that she can play a role in that.


Looking to the future

 International efforts in cancer research have the ability to improve the lives of millions of women around the world and Delphine is confident that progress is being made.

“Things are moving really fast in this space so hopefully it won’t be too far away.”