There is great empathy and compassion in Dr Eliza's work which comes from her first hand understanding of how disempowering a cancer diagnosis is. She is a survivor of breast cancer and her experience motivates her research drive to find better ways to prevent or reduce some of the side effects of cancer treatment. Her group’s research also investigates whether certain compounds in some foods and other natural products could prevent cancer or be used alongside contemporary treatments to improve their action.
Dr Eliza's research into cancer actually began before she experienced cancer herself, her PhD looked at the changes in the gene pathways and gene expression when a cancer forms. She explains that cancer forms through mutations in the DNA, the mutations keep accumulating until we see the signs of cancer growth and forms of cancer.
When she experienced cancer herself she found that cancer patients (including herself) aren't concerned about the gene expression in their cancer, instead they're completely focussed on how they can survive the diagnosis and remain as healthy as possible through the treatment and afterwards. They're asking questions about anti-cancer diets, cancer-fighting foods and what types of foods to focus on in their diet. Should they be eating collard greens, or leafy greens in general, carrot sticks, cruciferous vegetables, or leafy vegetables, or green vegetables, fresh fruit and how many servings of fruit, or should it just be a plant-based diet? Ultimately there is great confusion about what lifestyle factors have the greatest cancer-fighting benefits.
Now one of her research areas focuses on whether compounds derived from foods can be used as part of a prevention regimen for individuals with a predisposition for cancer. Her dream would be for more clinical trials to be funded for testing the use of natural compounds. In this conversation Dr Eliza explains the challenges of finding funding and the progress they've made so far with their research with compounds such as curcumin and capsaicin.
Curcumin is from the spice turmeric but it doesn't have a long bioavailability in the body (lucky or we'd all be yellow!). Previous research at USQ investigated the use of a nanoparticle formulation that encapsulated the curcumin which increased the bioavailability of the curcumin. The research was done with obese rats because obesity is associated with an increase in colorectal cancer rates.
Hence the importance of maintaining healthy body weight. Dr Eliza explains that a diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates from highly processed grain products (breads, cakes, biscuits etc) and a diet high in dairy products and animal products and low in fiber intake is a predisposition for weight gain, and obesity is known to increase the risk for colorectal cancer and for most types of cancer, as well as the spread of cancer.
To move away from the animal studies, Dr Eliza explains that the project then moved into a laboratory test using a human cell line originally established from a colorectal cancer lesion from an individual who had an aggressive stage of the disease. The results showed that the curcumin does have cancer-fighting properties in human cancer cells and did have an influence on preventing the genetic processes that lead to further cancer development.
As an expansion on the findings with curcumin one of Dr Eliza’s PhD students began researching with skin cells because skin cancer is a big problem for Australians, especially the farming community. The UV radiation from the sun damages the skin cells and this can lead to skin cancer. The early results in lab studies indicate that it may be possible at the molecular level that the curcumin does have an effect on the DNA pathways that can be damaged which increase the risk of cancer, particularly skin cancer. These are promising results from the culture dish and animal studies.
Another type of cancer that Dr Eliza is researching is prostate cancer which is one of the highest diagnosed cancers in males. The majority of early diagnoses of prostate cancer are not fatal. So often the clinical advice may be to wait and watch, but men with this diagnosis often want something more empowering to do to help themselves. This is where Dr Eliza's work with the capsaicin began, it's the phytochemical from chillies - it's what makes chillies hot!
Capsaicin had already been shown in previous laboratory studies to be a cancer-fighting nutrient that kills prostate cancer cells so Dr Eliza and her team wanted to know if capsaicin could be used to prevent an early prostate cancer from making further cancer cell growth and further development of cancer. They had very promising results.
Currently Dr Eliza says that there is no harm in including more chillies into a healthy diet if you have prostate cancer. But more research and clinical trials need to be done to be able to be sure of effectiveness and dosages. So at this stage the general advice is enjoy the health benefits of eating a diet rich in plant-based foods, including a variety of vegetables (including chillies!) and healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight and in the process potentially reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Unfortunately, Dr Eliza and her team couldn't continue this research because in the last twelve months the majority of research funding in Australia has been directed at COVID19 related work.
As well as her research into fighting cancer with food, Dr Eliza and her team are working with Aboriginal Medical Services and Indigenous Elders to understand the potential for traditional bush medicines to be used to treat chronic wounds. The discussion about the bush medicines is interesting in regards to traditional knowledge, seasons and usages, as well as the challenges for rural and remote Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians who may also have complications with other chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
One of the really surprising discussions in this conversation is around how difficult it is to clinically test whether natural products are effective in treating and preventing cancer. Apart from the significant challenges around doing studies in humans, Dr Eliza explains what I think is one of the most fascinating reasons natural products are difficult to investigate and obtain funding for clinical trials. Because they do more than just target one biological pathway! As potent antioxidants they can have a variety of anticancer properties as well as anti-inflammatory effects which can halt cancer cells as well as help other imbalances in the body, whereas most new drugs are designed to target one pathway in a cell.
Just before we end our conversation Dr Eliza discusses the promising results that her team and collaborators gathered from the research she did using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to aid breast cancer survivors’ minds and bodies in recovering from their cancer diagnosis and its treatment.
Overall, we're a long way off using natural products in the place of or to reduce the use pharmaceutical treatments for cancer, but progress is being made in providing evidence of the cancer-fighting nutrients that are held within a healthy diet.
Dr Eliza Whiteside is an Associate Professor in Biomedical Sciences, Health Sciences Discipline Lead and the Molecular Biomarkers Research Group Leader at the University of Southern Queensland where she has been since late 2013.
For the past 20 years, Eliza has lived in Australia, the UK and the US and held lecturing and research appointments at Queensland University of Technology, University of Sydney and University of Bedfordshire in the UK. She obtained her PhD in cancer research from the Centre for Molecular Biotechnology at QUT in 2001.
Eliza’s molecular biology-based research investigates whether compounds derived from natural products (such as foods, fungi and plants) can prevent cancerous changes in the body and her quality of life research explores how lifestyle factors such as psychosocial health and exercise can influence recovery from cancer treatment.
As a breast cancer survivor herself, Eliza is passionate about undertaking research that actually makes a difference to the lives of others, as well as advocating for equal opportunity to all in research and academia through her role on the USQ HES Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Eliza is an active proponent for science outreach in schools, particularly in remote and regional areas as part of the USQ Deadly Ways Indigenous Outreach program. She is passionate about fundraising and advocacy for cancer as the Board Secretary for Blush Cancer Care, and on the organising committee for the Mother’s Day Classic Fun Run in Toowoomba.
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