A leading scientist at the University of York has been awarded a grant worth almost £92,000 by Breast Cancer Now to investigate – using innovative neuroscience techniques – whether a change in the electrical voltage of breast cancer cells could be helping them to spread around the body.

Tuesday 18 July 2017      Research
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When breast cancer spreads to another part of the body – known as secondary breast cancer – it becomes incurable, and the majority of the 11,500 women who die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancers spread. In York alone, over 160 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and around 30 women in the region die from the disease each year.1

In recent years, there has been an increasing crossover of scientific fields, and the prospect of adapting techniques from one discipline for use in another has been integral to some major advances in science and medicine. Dr William Brackenbury, based at the University of York, is now applying his expertise in studying the biology of nerve cells in the brain, to breast cancer.

Neurons are electrically excitable cells that transmit impulses around the body, and are present in their billions in the nervous system. The electrical impulses in neurons are regulated by proteins called voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs). These channels allow small, electrically charged sodium ions to travel in and out of cells. They also help developing neurons to migrate and form the central nervous system.

Will BrackenburyDr William Brackenbury has previously found that – like neurons – breast cancer cells that are spreading around the body often contain high levels of VGSCs, and are more positively charged than other cells. Dr Brackenbury’s previous research found that reducing the amount of VGSCs in tumour cells in mice can reduce the growth and spread of breast cancer, suggesting that drugs that block a particular type of VGSC could potentially be used to stop breast cancer spreading.

Dr Brackenbury will now lead a three year project that will confirm whether it is the slightly more positive voltage of breast cancer cells that helps them migrate to other parts of the body, which in future could lead to the development of new drugs that prevent breast cancer spreading by controlling cells’ electrical voltage.

Dr Brackenbury was the first to use a neuroscience technique called patch-clamping to study whole breast tumour samples. In this project, his team will use this technique to record the electrical signals across VGSCs in breast cancer tumours that have been removed from mice.

By also investigating how cells taken from these tumours are able to invade, the team will build up a bigger picture of how the electrical properties of breast cancer cells contribute to the cancer cells’ ability to invade.

The team will then use patient samples from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank to find out whether the different building blocks of VGSCs are associated with certain breast cancer subtypes or patient survival.

Dr Richard Berks, Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Dr Brackenbury’s research is the first of its kind – adapting techniques from neuroscience to study samples of breast tumours has the potential to open up an entirely untapped area of research that could provide unique insight into understanding how breast cancer spreads around the body.

“Existing drugs that target voltage-gated sodium channels are already used to treat epilepsy. If these channels are validated as a target for breast cancer therapeutics, the repurposing of antiepileptic drugs could bring us a step closer to preventing the spread of breast cancer.”

Breast Cancer Now thanks Future Dreams for their generous support of Dr Will Brackenbury’s research.


1. Source of information: Local incidence and mortality survival statistics were provided on request by Public Health England, April 2017 – similar data are available from cancerdata.nhs.uk. Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.