To celebrate the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank's milestone of 10,000 donors, Tissue Bank Officer Rosie Robertson talks us through some of the projects that have benefited from samples provided by our amazing donors.

Wednesday 16 March 2016      Research blog
Cells from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank cell programme

Cells from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank cell programme

How do you thank 10,000 anonymous people for a completely selfless act?

That's the question we’re asking ourselves at the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank as we celebrate the milestone of 10,000 donors to our Bank. We have more than 40,000 samples from donors who have contributed to establish a legacy that will help us achieve our goal that, by 2050, no one who develops breast cancer will die from it. It is a legacy all of our donors should be very proud of – we certainly are!

It is no small feat to put together a national Tissue Bank working across multiple locations. Reaching this point has taken a huge amount of time, effort, planning and much more. However, all of this would be pointless without our amazing donors – after all a tissue bank without samples isn’t much good to anyone!

Our donors are people undergoing breast surgery and we collect cancerous tissue from tumours and also non-cancerous tissue as scientists need to be able to look at both together. The tissue is either frozen or fixed in chemicals, if there is enough tissue it will be digested down into individual cell types, called primary cells, which are frozen. Blood can be split into its components and frozen for storage.

Our goals when collecting samples are focused on enabling future research, however, we have noticed a pleasant consequence of the donation process; patients view donating to the Tissue Bank really positively, they take pride in contributing to help future generations who have breast cancer.

This is beautifully expressed by Sue, 62, from Grantham, one of the first people to donate tissue to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. Sue was diagnosed with a fairly aggressive form of breast cancer in 2011, her right breast was removed in May of that year.

Sue says:

"I’m so proud to have been able to contribute to this invaluable resource, particularly because as a patient I have benefited directly from the advances brought about by research over the last twenty years.”

Why is a Tissue Bank so essential to breast cancer research?

To understand and ultimately beat breast cancer scientists need to be able to study it first-hand. Collecting tissue samples from people with breast cancer is an essential part of this process. Researchers use this material to increase our understanding of the characteristics of cancer, to search for features that can be assist with diagnosis, and to identify and develop new targets for breast cancer treatments.

Since we opened our Tissue Bank in 2012, more than 7,600 samples have been used in or allocated research. In the short time our Tissue Bank has been open we have already started to see scientific findings from tissue donations made by people like Sue – results which could benefit people affected by breast cancer.

Electric pores

A team of researchers at the University of York, led by Dr Will Brackenbury, used breast cancer specimens from the bank to study how tiny openings on the surface of cancer cells, sodium channels, assist in spreading cancer from the breast. Sodium channels are usually found in nerve cells where they send electrochemical messages allowing cells to communicate with each other.

They have also been found in metastatic (secondary) cancer cells. His research showed that a protein called beta-one, a subunit of sodium channels, is present at higher levels in breast cancer samples compared with normal tissue. They also showed for the first time that the increase in beta-one levels makes tumours grow faster and plays a significant role in enabling the cells to change shape and move, and consequently spread.

In another project, again using samples from our Tissue Bank, Dr Brackenbury’s team studied another subunit of sodium channels, called as Nav1.5. They found significantly higher levels of Nav1.5 in tumour cells than in normal breast tissue. In a separate study, they suppressed Nav1.5 in cancer cells in mice. This resulted in reduced tumour growth rates and metastasis (the spread of cancer cells). These results observing the role sodium channels play in breast cancer could help find ways to prevent its spread, which is the main cause of death from the disease.

Chemical alterations

Dr James Flanagan from Imperial College London, used samples from the Tissue Bank to study how molecules called methyl groups can influence treatment. Methylation is a normal cell process that involves chemical tags, called methyl groups, being added to DNA. These tags provide instructions for key processes. The tags can change how our cells interpret the instructions laid out in our genes and possibly lead a normal cell to become cancerous, or a cancer cell to react in a certain way to treatment.

Dr Flanagan’s team focused on exploring the number of methyl groups on the ESR1 gene in breast cancer cells. This gene contains the cells' instructions to make oestrogen receptors and so plays a key role in why, and which, breast cancers do or don’t use oestrogen to help them grow. They compared samples from the Tissue Bank with other types of samples; cell lines and cells from breast milk. The results showed a marked difference in the amount and location of methyl groups on ESR1 between cells from the Tissue Bank samples and the other cells.

This led his research team to re-emphasise how the choice of research materials, like cell lines or tissue samples, can completely change the results of a research project. This highlights again the importance of tissue samples in getting results that accurately reflect what is happening in real tumours – and so ultimately getting the best results to make the biggest impact for people with breast cancer.

A final thank you

The research conducted by Drs Brackenbury and Flanagan was made possible by patients who donated their tissue to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. It is through their completely selfless donations that we are able to work together with the research community to study breast cancer in pursuit of our 2050 goal.

Thank you to everyone that has or will contribute to our Tissue Bank from everyone at Breast Cancer Now, all the researchers and most importantly everyone who will one day benefit from your remarkable legacy.

More information

Find out more about the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank

Read our research projects to learn more about the research we fund

Take a look at our other Research Blogs

About the author

Rosie Robertson is a Tissue Bank Officer at Breast Cancer Now.

She has a background in medical imaging and a keen interest in promoting better patient care.