Dr Lisa Pilkington has no feeling in part of her face because of cancer.

A decade after her battle, the young Kiwi scientist is pushing toward a ground-breaking treatment for one of the killer disease's most aggressive and notorious forms.

If her new research project succeeds, the world could be a big step closer to a targeted treatment for the fast-growing triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

It's behind 15 to 20 per cent of Kiwi breast cancer diagnoses. In 2018, there were an estimated 350,000 new cases of it worldwide.

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With no current immunotherapies for TNBC, which doesn't have any of the three common receptor targets for treatment, the prognosis is poor, and patients are left with the sole, unpleasant option of chemotherapy.

But there's hope that could soon change.

Pilkington, a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland, is taking a promising discovery she helped make into anti-cancer compounds and pushing the boundaries further.

"We found an enzyme – PC-PLC – that promotes the growth of various triple-negative breast cancers," explained Pilkington just awarded an $80,000 fellowship through Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.

PC-PLC turned out to be six times more active in a TNBC cell line, than in normal cells, revealing itself as a tantalising target for new drugs.

Pilkington and her colleagues have now found what they believe to be one of the most potent drugs that can be thrown at the enzyme, acting as an inhibitor, or blocker.

The bad news: this blocker degrades within seconds, and well before it can reach its target.

"We've now modified these compounds so that they're more potent and also have better stability."

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The modified compounds are 40 times more stable than the original blocker - but they still only last about 20 minutes.

"I'm attracted to this cause because I've seen how much it affects people's lives," says Dr Lisa Pilkington. Photo / Supplied

"We know how they're degrading. This project is about putting our knowledge into action to increase the compounds' stability."

Pilkington hoped her team might've found the beginnings of a first-ever targeted treatment.

"The PC-PLC enzyme is a lock. Now we are working on finding the key," she said.

It's all about the shape and size of molecules – if the key fits the lock properly, it can stop the enzyme properly."

She aims to get the blockers into preclinical trials by the end of her two-year project.

"That would be the dream," she said.

"Once we have achieved this aim of optimising our compounds to have these better properties, advanced pre-clinical trials, tests and optimisations need to be performed and once those are complete, the next step would be to move to clinical trials."

The quest is a personal one for the 32-year-old.

"My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when I first started university. She was treated with Herceptin and she's well now, so she's very lucky that the treatment worked for her," she said.

"I've seen first-hand what it's like to go through breast cancer. My aunt's suffering was huge, but the people around her also suffered too – cancer has such a big impact. "

She's also had her own brush with cancer. Around 10 years ago, just as she'd finished my Honours degree and was about to start on her PhD, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her salivary gland.

"When they first found the tumour they didn't initially think it was cancer," she said.

"But it was in a place that would grow bigger, close to my carotid artery and nerve. It was only after they removed the tumour that they realised it was cancerous.

"After surgery, I had radiation therapy every day for six weeks. I tried my hardest to not let treatment interfere with my life. Radiation therapy is relatively non-invasive although it does have some side effects.

"Despite these effects, I was still going to the lab and trying to carry on as normal, not letting cancer affect my life and work."

Fortunately, the treatment worked – but the experience was eye-opening.

"It was terrifying being faced with my own mortality. There is a chance cancer could come back and that's something I still live with every day," she said.

Triple negative breast cancer is behind 15 to 20 per cent of Kiwi breast cancer diagnoses. In 2018, there were an estimated 350,000 new cases of it worldwide. Photo / 123RF
Triple negative breast cancer is behind 15 to 20 per cent of Kiwi breast cancer diagnoses. In 2018, there were an estimated 350,000 new cases of it worldwide. Photo / 123RF

"I've had a couple of scares – I've discovered some suspect lumps and had several biopsies to make sure it hasn't returned. So it's always at the back of my mind. I still have effects from the cancer.

"I have no feeling in my ear and the lower left side of my face as a result of the treatments, particularly as they had to cut very close to the nerve during surgery.

"I still get a dry mouth, and I have to be very careful in the sun – the area has been radiated enough and I don't want to get it burnt anymore."

That personal connection has since helped drive her work.

"I want to work towards something that has meaning and impact for people. I'm attracted to this cause because I've seen how much it affects people's lives," she said.

"Knowing that what I've done might one day contribute in some way to someone's life is what motivates me to go to work each day."

Kiwis can show their support by donating to Pink Ribbon Breakfast - Breast Cancer Foundation NZ's biggest fundraising campaign. The money raised helps fund breast cancer education and innovative projects by some of our country's top researchers, and supports patients and their families as they navigate their breast cancer journeys. See more here.