Running for game-changing research

Less than two years after a breast cancer diagnosis, Professor Gemma Figtree has completed the prestigious Boston Marathon while raising significant funds for cancer research.

Gemma crossed the finish line in a sub four hour time as part of the talented team running for the internationally renowned Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Gemma ran her first marathon just after completing six months of chemotherapy in 2022, so to be accepted into the Boston event was a remarkable achievement.

“I was really excited to have the opportunity to run in the marathon, but it was particularly an honour to run for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute,” she said.

“For me to come through chemotherapy, and then qualify to run Boston was a major milestone in itself, and then to be able to run for one of the world's best cancer research institute’s fundraising teams, was a perfect combination.

“Running was a crucial part of my recovery, and there’s now increasing evidence around the benefits of exercise for cancer patients from reductions in recurrence, improved mental health and a reduction in the side effects of chemotherapy.”

Gemma is tremendously thankful to her donors who helped her raise more than $30,000.

“Philanthropic funding is so important as it often supports early to mid-career researchers or early stage ideas, where there may not necessarily be all the data to succeed with a highly competitive national funding grant. It can be a crucial component in advancing medical research.”

Gemma hopes there will be further philanthropic funds for her own research program into heart disease and the rise in cases of coronary artery disease and heart attack in patients without the traditional risk factors, like blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking.

“I’m sure we can learn from some of our cancer colleagues about the drugs that can target specific biological pathways that are driving an individual's susceptibility or resilience to common disease.

“This could be particularly relevant for heart disease, with 25 per cent of heart attack patients developing ticking time bomb coronary plaque without the traditional risk factors.

“We are developing new biomarkers in the blood to help detect early coronary artery plaque before a heart attack, enabling all patients to benefit from effective treatments. These markers are designed to be integrated into clinical pathways that take a stepwise approach to imaging using advanced CT coronary angiography.

“This would have a game changing impact on reducing heart attacks - because, if we can detect the disease, we can treat it.”

Imaging of coronary plaque also has an important role in providing a new pathway for novel drugs to prevent heart attack. Gemma is leading an international initiative through the CAD Frontiers not-for-profit: the Atherosclerotic CT Imaging Outcome Consortium: Accelerating Atherosclerosis Drug Development.

This initiative aims to develop and support a research consortium dedicated to applying advanced computed tomography (CT) imaging to atherosclerosis quantification and responses to therapeutic intervention. Consortium goals are for coronary CT to become an accepted susceptibility biomarker (diagnostic, prognostic and monitoring) and a predictive biomarker (pharmacodynamic and surrogate endpoints) in cardiovascular clinical trials. This would dramatically reduce the cost and time required to develop much needed new coronary artery drugs without reducing the rigor.