Ciara Duffy’s Breast Cancer Breakthrough

Photo by Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Ciara Duffy (2011) is a lesson in why we need to promote curiosity and a love for learning as the gold standard in education rather than the pursuit of examination success. Ciara’s enthusiasm for science and her naturally inquisitive mind quite literally led Ciara to a breakthrough in helping to develop a new treatment for the most aggressive types of breast cancer!

In 2020 Ciara Duffy received international attention and acclaim in the world of cancer research. Her PhD into the effect of honeybee venom on triple negative breast cancer cells broke new ground. It provided a way forward in the treatment of the notoriously hard-to-treat forms of the disease.

Ciara found that triple negative breast cancer cells could be killed within an hour of exposure to melittin, a peptide found in the venom of honeybees. The peptide causes holes to form in the cells which then cause the cells to burst open and die.

Ciara then went on to find that a synthetic version of melittin is also effective. It is research that could lead to targeted treatments that would change the prognosis for thousands of patients around the world.

From an early age, Ciara demonstrated an interest in science. Her Year 8 Science teacher was Mrs Lisa Shelley who is still a staff member at Santa Maria College today. She says, “Ciara was always so interested in science and asked lots of questions, whether it be about the topic we were studying or something that she had seen or read. It was clear that Ciara just really loved the subject and wanted to learn more. While she was a very strong student academically, it was more Ciara’s inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for the subject that set her apart from her peers and contributed to her success in her early years of studying science.”

On leaving Santa Maria, Ciara had wanted to study medicine at university, but she didn’t get in, so began studies in a biomedical science double major. It was during this time that Ciara’s mother developed triple negative breast cancer.

Ciara was her mum’s main carer for a year and saw first-hand the damaging side effects as her mum went through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. It gave Ciara an insight into the struggle of patients going through the effects of the generalised treatments available.

Although her mother survived, Ciara says, “It turned my world upside down and I was just so angry. I knew nothing about cancer until this happened and I was like, ‘Why isn’t there targeted treatment for this type of breast cancer? What can we do about it?” It was a turning point. She switched her studies to anatomy and physiology.

Ciara’s cancer research was completed through the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the University of Western Australia (UWA). It was initially part of her Honours year, working with a team of professors who specialise in the area. It then became the focus of her PhD.

Of course, Ciara’s success is well documented and has been publicly lauded, but her discovery was very personally emotional at the time. She says, “(On the) day the results showed that the cancer cells had completely died, but at the same concentration of venom the normal breast cells were not affected, I burst into tears. It was so exciting. I was the first person in the world to ever see this result. It was the beginning of a wonderful journey.”

Ciara went on to travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland to explore whether honeybees from different areas had different effects on triple negative breast cancer cells. They didn’t; they were all effective. She also looked at whether bumblebee venom could be used to kill breast cancer cells, which surprisingly had no effect at all compared with the honeybee venom. Ciara also travelled to conferences in the United States and Germany. She found wonderful mentors and she deliberately developed a more entrepreneurial mindset.

Ciara has now relocated to London. She found that the part of her PhD she enjoyed most was communicating results. So, she is now employed as a medical writer. She writes abstracts, posters, slide presentations, and manuscripts for a medical communications and technology company supporting scientists and the pharmaceutical industry in publishing their findings in a clear and scientifically accurate way. She loves being exposed constantly to the ideas and research at the forefront of science.

As for her honeybees and breast cancer research, the next steps require a multidisciplinary collaboration and a significant investment of resources to formally assess the optimum method of delivery and to help with toxicity testing. There is so much more work to do. However, what a legacy Ciara has established already.

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