The Breast Cancer Now tissue bank

Monday 1 June 2015      Research blog
Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank

This blog is the ninth in a series exploring the achievements of Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer as both charities work towards launching as one brand new charity. The last post looked at the great strides we have made towards improving the way patients with triple negative breast cancer are treated. In this post we celebrate five years of the Breast Cancer Tissue Bank.

A tissue bank is born

Back in 2008 we asked leading breast cancer scientists what was holding them back in finding better treatments for breast cancer. One of the things they identified was a lack of access to high-quality breast tissue to use in their studies. In 2010, we responded by forming the first ever national breast cancer tissue bank.

There are currently four NHS centres making up the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank: Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London, The University of Leeds, The University of Nottingham and The University of Sheffield. 

At these centres, scientists collect and store samples of excess breast tissue and blood and make them available to researchers so they can understand more about the disease.

Since opening, the Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank has collected almost 32,000 samples from around 8,000 patients. More than 6,600 samples have been either used in or allocated to 23 research projects.

Why is tissue so vital?

But why do we need tissue for research? Traditionally, one of the main methods of studying breast cancer in the lab has been using something called ‘cell lines’. These are cells grown in cycles (propagated) for many years after they have originally been collected from a tumour. While cell lines have been critical to a great deal of breast cancer research, and have contributed to many important discoveries, they do not always fully represent how real breast tumours behave. Working with human tissue and cells derived directly from the tissue (called primary cells) allows scientists to study the exact characteristics of the tumour, to understand how they develop and interact with surrounding tissues in the body.

Prior to the formation of the Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank, accessing breast cancer tissue was a postcode lottery for scientists. If they were lucky, they would know somebody who held a small bank at a University. Often, hundreds of samples are needed for a study, and, for many, this meant sourcing samples from a number of banks, which may have collected and prepared samples differently. This made it harder to repeat key findings.

The Tissue Bank centres ensure consistency of sample preparation by following set protocols for the tissue they collect. So samples donated by a patient in Leeds will be prepared and stored in exactly the same way as samples given by a patient in London.  We also bank non-cancerous samples so that scientists can compare diseased and healthy tissue.  

Primary cells and microarrays 

Tissue samples in the Bank are used to generate useful research materials including primary cells and something scientists call ‘tissue microarrays’.

Tissue microarrays (TMAs) are blocks that contain small amounts from multiple tissue samples laid out in a grid. These TMAs can be created from up to 400 individual samples using computers and an automated machine called a TissueMicroarrayer. The Tissue Bank is generating TMAs for researchers, concentrating on material that is difficult for small banks to provide due to limited sample availability. This saves time and costs for researchers and spares precious tissue samples by only using small amounts for each TMA. The Bank has a number of TMAs made up and can make custom TMAs upon request at the University of Nottingham.

By using fresh cells taken directly from tumours donated by patients researchers can be confident that discoveries made using these primary cells will be applicable to breast cancer patients.  Primary cells from tissue samples are available for researchers to apply for use in their work.

Electric pores

We are starting to see results from studies that have used tissue from the Bank – results which, one day, could benefit people affected by the disease.

Dr Will Brackenbury from the University of York and his team studied how tiny ‘pores’ in cancer cells, called ‘sodium channels’, assist in spreading cancer from the breast. Sodium channels are usually found in neurons where they are involved in transmitting electrical impulses, but have also been found in metastatic (secondary) cancer cells.

Using clinical breast cancer specimens from the bank and laboratory based work, the researchers discovered that a protein called beta-one which forms part of the sodium channel is present at high levels in breast cancer samples compared with normal tissue.

They also showed for the first time that the increase in beta-one protein levels make tumours grow faster and play a significant role in enabling the cells to change shape and move, and consequently spread.

This knowledge could help find ways to stop the spread of breast cancer, which is the main cause of death from the disease.

Chemical alterations

More recently, Dr James Flanagan from Imperial College London, used samples from the Tissue Bank to study how molecules called methyl groups can influence treatment. The presence of these groups on DNA 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 amount of methyl groups on the ESR1 gene in breast cancer cells. ESR1 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.

The results showed a marked difference in the amount and location of methyl groups on ESR1 between cells from the Tissue Bank samples, compared with cell lines and individual cells from breast milk. 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 in 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.

Not over by a long shot

Samples from the Bank continue to be used in ground-breaking studies that will lead to us understanding more about breast cancer and getting closer to a cure faster than ever before.

None of this work would be possible without the support of the patients who donate their tissue, the staff at the Tissue Bank centres, the scientists and patient advocates guiding the work of the Bank or the generous financial support from Asda and Walk the Walk. We look forward to reporting more successes soon!

Cheryl Lenny – Tissue Bank Liaison Manager

About the author

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Cheryl Lenny is the Tissue Bank Liaison Manager for the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. She has a degree in biology and has nine years’ experience in scientific communication and engagement roles in the private and charity sectors.