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Researcher profile: Heloisa Helena Milioli

Heloisa Helena Milioli

Moving from Brazil in 2012, Heloisa Helena Milioli is now establishing her career in NSW investigating breast cancer treatments targeting hormone receptors.

Her background in biology and bioinformatics is combined with a drive to help women with breast cancer.

Heloisa made the move to Australia to further her high-quality research. It is now coming together at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research with the support of an early-career fellowship from the Cancer Institute NSW.

“Australia gives us lots of opportunities to do high-quality research and help the local and global community," Heloisa says.

"NSW has great facilities, technologies and resources. There's great support for the cancer research field here.”

What is the research?

The focus of Heloisa’s research is ‘Expanding the repertoire of therapies targeting sex steroid receptors in breast cancer’.

This is a new approach to improving outcomes for people with breast cancer; in particular, those who don’t benefit from conventional endocrine therapies.

“Most breast cancers express estrogen receptors – a hormone receptor,” explains Heloisa.

“These can be targeted with endocrine therapy, and some people respond well. However, around 15 to 30 per cent don't respond to these drugs, and tumours develop resistance.

“My project aims to identify new drugs that can target other ‘cousin’ hormone receptors, as an alternative approach for modulating estrogen receptors.”

The estrogen receptor (ER) is a nuclear sex steroid receptor expressed in approximately 75 per cent of breast cancers. Resistance to ER-directed therapies remains a major clinical problem.

“I check for molecular changes within the tumours before and after treatment, using different compounds, so we can understand what exactly a drug is doing and how tumours are responding,” she says.

“Breast cancer is not a unique disease, so we need to look at and understand how the differences across sub-types impact hormone regulation and drug response.”

What could it mean for people with cancer?

“My current work has the potential to impact breast cancer care and control, both in Australia and internationally.”

Heloisa hopes her work will develop new treatment strategies for women with breast cancer; women who otherwise might not have another treatment option.

“My career objectives are focused on improving outcomes for women with cancer through research.”

In particular, Heloisa is driven by family. She has seen first-hand the impact of breast cancer.

“My grandmother had breast cancer, and five years later it was my aunty. It’s something that has had a great impact on my family.

“Fortunately both survived, but not everyone is that lucky. I want to help more women have access to new treatments and support.”

The progress so far

“I have explored unique breast cancer models and data sets – coming from the lab and collaborators,” Heloisa says.

“I aim to integrate all this amazing information and develop gene signatures that will bring novel insights into this hormone regulation.”

“We will find alternative targets from these signatures and translate our findings into the clinical setting.”

How did your career start?

“I'm a biologist – I decided to move into the bioinformatics field when I applied for my PhD.”

Bioinformatics is a relatively new field in cancer research combining computer science and biology.

“Here at Garvan there is a team of experts focused on bioinformatics doing a fantastic work – they look at samples from a global scale to a single cell resolution, which brings another level of detail to understand complex diseases, such as cancer.”

“For me starting out, I just found that it would be extremely relevant to diversify my expertise to be able analyse high-throughput data – and look at the data in a different way, from different perspectives.”

“Moving to bioinformatics and data science, it's adding a lot to my research.”

“My vision is to play a key role as an integral member of a collaborative team of researchers and clinicians who are focused on bringing discoveries from the laboratory into patient care, ultimately aiming to improve the disease outcomes.”