Dr. Anne Rios on finding her passion for breast cancer research

Dr. Anne Rios of The Centenary Institute is a woman with an innate passion for research. She wanted to translate this passion in a subject that touched her and couldn’t ignore the staggering Australian breast cancer statistics. She is developing a new 3D imaging technique that allows scientists to visualise entire breast tissues down to a single-cell level. The beauty of the invention is its non-invasive nature, and its ability to keep breast tissue intact for the 1 in 8 women diagnosed with breast cancer.

What’s more impressive is that she is the only researcher in Australia and one of the few in the world who is working on this, and last year she won the Centenary Institute Medical Innovation Award. We sat down with her to discuss how she discovered her passion, and the amazing things she’s achieved with her research.

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How did you discover your passion for research? Did anyone inspire you, were there any events along the way that made you realise this was what you wanted to do?

I have always been artistic in my life and creativity is very important to me. I remember looking under the microscope during my first internship and thinking this is what I want to do with my life: combine both art and science. I settled on biology because there is so much to discover including how cells organise and communicate with each other to build organs and complex organisms like us – it’s magic!

I have the chance to express my personality into my work and I feel very blessed for it.

When I started my scientific career I wanted to combine my passions to visualise the behaviour of cells in physiological condition but also during cancer. This is how I decided to develop this 3D imaging technology that allows you to immerse into the cellular architecture of entire organ in 3D. I have the chance to express my personality into my work and I feel very blessed for it.

Why does breast cancer research mean so much to you?

I am a woman and women’s health is an important cause for me, it is my fight! My research is my way of helping other women and standing for all of us.

What are some personal and professional challenges you faced along the way, and how did you overcome each of them?

Professional: To remain at the leading edge of science! For that, you have to push yourself constantly, you cannot just be happy with what you achieved, you have to think two steps ahead. Predict your future achievement, bet on it and fight for it without knowing if it is going to be successful. You have to believe in your ideas and that they will bring you closer to your goals, which in my case is to gain a better understanding of how breast cancer develops to offer potential avenues for new treatments.

Predict your future achievement, bet on it and fight for it without knowing if it is going to be successful.

Personal: What is challenging is to find a balance between work and personal life, and I am not quite there yet… I am so excited by what I am doing that it is difficult to switch off. It is something that I am aware of and I am trying to work on because at some stage I want to start a family and I know that I will have to adapt my work rhythm to give a lot of space for that. I think it is one of the major issues women are facing in our generation, finding this balance.

Were there any times you had doubts while working on the new imaging technique?

I never had doubts, I always believe! But honestly, it was so exciting to develop this technique that I cannot recall any doubts. I am a very positive person so when I am faced with a problem or challenge, first I relativize and then push through or find another way!

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What is the impact of this technique on those who have breast cancer, or are at risk?

To deliver the most effective therapy to treat women with breast cancer, clinicians rely on standardised prognosis protocols based on histopathology assays. One of the drawbacks of this assay is that they are performed on only a small section of the biopsy that does not necessarily reflect the overall composition of the entire tumour. In addition, this technique allows the detection of only one biomarker at the time.

We have developed a novel sample preparation for intact human biopsies and combined this with 3D microscopic technologies to unveil the 3D architecture of entire tumours, while simultaneously detecting multiple biomarkers. This technology provides us with an unprecedented view of the complex cellular composition of tumours!

However, this is a very novel imaging technique that is still yet to reach its full potential within medical research. Developing this innovative 3D visualisation technique for clinical research is my next challenge, and I believe that this technology could not only provide a better understanding of breast cancer progression, but also reveal new predictive tools to assist clinicians’ choice for designing personalised treatment strategies.

What would you say to girls who are in, or who are considering going into STEM fields?

Dream big, be yourself and don’t overthink the consequences!