Dharmica Mistry has a very big goal: to deliver a world first blood test that will allow early diagnosis of breast cancer, a disease that today affects one in eight Australian women in their lifetime.

Dr Mistry is on the cusp of making her goal a reality that will revolutionise the breast cancer diagnostic industry. She’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Australian biotech startup BCAL Diagnostics which is working to bring to market the ground-breaking blood test based on a discovery the young scientist made eight years ago when investigating a link between hair and breast cancer.

Health View spoke with Dr Mistry about her career so far and the discovery that led her to become one of a growing trend of science entrepreneurs.

You arrived in Australia aged six with your parents from the UK, grew up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney and eventually studied at Sydney University. Tell us how your interest in science emerged?

I really enjoyed science in high school. Biology especially resonated with me because it was all about the human body. I was fascinated with the way things worked.

After high school my first plan was to become a nutritionist or dietician but once I got to university I fell in love with microbiology, I just wanted to be in the lab all the time. I loved the hands-on part: problem solving, figuring things out. It’s really exciting. I ended up staying on an extra year to do Honours because I loved it so much.

What was your plan when you left uni?

My intention was just to get out there, make some money and go travelling. There were a couple of jobs on the table. One was with a big corporation – it paid well but it was very entry-level. Then there was another job, with a small startup. I didn’t have a clue what they were doing but it was something to do with breast cancer and hair and it sounded fascinating. So at 21 I decided to take the risk and go with the small company. Early on I met Dr Peter French who was the chief scientist there who’s been my mentor and now a very good friend and colleague.

Tell us about the breakthrough when you made your discovery.

It was very slow work, putting hair onto slides and x-raying it. There was this association between hair and breast cancer that was cropping up about 70 per cent of the time but the company didn’t know the biological mechanism for why it was happening.

I was using my own hair as a negative control to compare with the hair of people with breast cancer. Then one day my hair showed the feature. It was a bit alarming but I was young and had no family history so I knew it was unlikely I had breast cancer. I sat down with Peter and we really thought about what had caused it, about what I was doing that was unusual.

That’s when the ‘aha’ moment came. Every three months I put olive oil in my hair, as a treatment. Olive oil is a lipid and, by using that, I was inducing the same feature that could be seen in the hair of women with breast cancer. We realised it was a lipid that was causing the effect. And if it could be seen in hair of cancer patients it could also be seen in their blood. That was the game changer. We finally knew what was causing that change and that it was getting into the hair via the blood so could be detected in a blood test.

Your proof-of-concept studies have shown the blood test is highly accurate?

Yes, it’s 90 per cent accurate for the most common form of breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma. Seeing those results was so exciting. It’s when you say to yourself, ‘This is what experimenting is all about.’ There’s nothing like it. You’ve worked towards a goal and solved a problem.

But now I realise that was the easiest moment – then the really hard work started. The discovery was the fun part. Then comes the real world application and the process to get it to market.

You co-founded BCAL Diagnostics in 2010. How did that happen?

Peter and I had had the discovery and I’d started on a PhD to work on it when the company we worked for went into administration. But we understood the importance and potential of this science and we wanted to pursue it. So we rallied around and found two angel investors, Ron Phillips and Jayne Shaw, the co-owners of the Sydney Breast Clinic.

The four of us said, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to invest everything in the science’ and BCAL – Breast Cancer Associated Lipids – Diagnostics was founded. I became the Research Scientist and continued my PhD to work on the science.

Towards the end of my PhD I stumbled on a group of researchers in the US at the University of Kentucky who’d had the same hypothesis. They had good data which was an independent validation of what we were doing. They were looking for a commercial partner to work with and we began a collaboration with them.

How heavily have you been involved in the business side of BCAL Diagnostics?

Once we started working with our US partners my role changed and I really needed to start getting my brain around the business side of things. I’m a traditionally-trained scientist, at the bench level, but I’ve had wonderful experience and it’s been a steep learning curve.

Sounds like some valuable skills for a scientist to have these days?

Lots of researchers have great ideas in the scientific world but getting them off the ground is hard. I’m lucky to have had amazing people who’ve supported and helped me learn the business side. Commercialising something from the research environment is a really big task. I totally underestimated how big.

What stage is your work at now?

We’re finishing up a blind study and then we can move to clinical trials and start to test it in “real life”. We’ve been doing that already with samples from women with breast cancer but we’ve got to do it now in larger numbers and show how it compares with what’s out there, which is mammography and, for women under 40, the hand self-examination. We’re hoping to start the clinical trials mid this year.

What’s your vision for the BCAL Diagnostics blood test?

I just want to see it out there as soon as possible – a simple blood test, nothing could be easier than that. What we say is, ‘every woman, everywhere” and that includes rural, remote areas, all those places where mammography is not easily available. And for young women. It’s crazy that, with so many medical advances, the hand is still the first way they find out they have something unusual in their breasts. I’m excited to be able to give a tool for all women that’s effective and accessible.

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