20 July 2006

A UQ pharmacy PhD student’s research will lead to a better understanding of the role of calcium in the body and its link to breast cancer.

Student Won Jae Lee graduated with his PhD on July 21 at the UQ Centre.

Calcium is essential for a healthy body. It exists in our bodies as a mineral in the blood for healthy teeth and bones but also in a freely movable form inside cells. Mr Lee’s research focused on intracellular calcium or calcium within cells.

Under the guidance of Dr Greg Monteith and Dr Sarah Roberts-Thomson, he studied the signals sent by intracellular calcium and how these signals relate to breast cancer biology.

“Calcium acts as an important signalling molecule or messenger in the body and controls many essential biological processes,” Mr Lee said.

Being able to better understand the role calcium messages play in the body and then possibly being able to control them, will have significant implications for health research and breast cancer treatment.

Mr Lee’s research has helped understand the role calcium plays in the breast in the production of milk but also in understanding how the proliferation of breast cancer is propagated.

“My research looked at the signals or cues that may cause a breast cancer cell to grow and whether calcium has a role in this,” Mr Lee said.

“The role of calcium signals has been researched in the past but the new thing is that we are gradually starting to understand how these calcium signals are actually controlled. It is one thing to know that calcium is important, it is another thing to know how you can manipulate it or how the cell itself may manipulate calcium signals,” he said.

Mr Lee found that by partially inhibiting calcium signals, there was a marked effect on reducing the proliferation of breast cancer cells.

“Understanding how to manipulate and control calcium signals could lead to future cancer treatment,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee attended the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in California in April last year. While his research is quite specific, there was strong interest in his findings.

He will continue to study the role of minerals and ions in the body after graduating with his PhD and will start a post-doctoral position at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, USA.

He plans to begin research on copper transport in the body. In the long term, this may lead to the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, other often fatal genetic diseases (like Menkes’ and Wilson’s diseases), as well as understanding how copper is essential for human health.

Mr Lee was the first UQ pharmacy student from the four-year pharmacy degree to be awarded a PhD.

Originally a three-year degree, the Bachelor of Pharmacy was increased to a four-year degree, adding more teaching in therapeutics and clinical pharmacy and improving pharmacy education at UQ.

The Health Sciences valedictorian for this ceremony was Helen Stark of West End who graduated with a Master of Physiotherapy Studies.

The guest speaker was Professor Keith Nugent. Professor Nugent is the Research Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for coherent X-ray Science at the University of Melbourne. He is also a Federation Fellow.

The ceremony included graduates from the Faculty of Engineering, Physical Sciences and Architecture, and Faculty of Health Sciences.

Media: Won Jae Lee (07 3346 9812, wonjae@pharmacy.uq.edu.au), Dr Greg Monteith (07 3365 7442, g.monteith@pharmacy.uq.edu.au) or Elizabeth Kerr at UQ Communications (07 3365 2339, 0422 940 572)