A leading Manchester scientist has been awarded a prestigious fellowship by Breast Cancer Now to investigate whether targeting two key proteins could stop the disease spreading to other parts of the body.

The news comes on World Cancer Day (Monday 4 February 2019), as people across the globe unite to raise awareness and take action against cancer.

When breast cancer spreads – known as metastatic (or secondary) breast cancer – it becomes incurable, and almost all of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread. More than 2,000 women in Greater Manchester are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and over 400 women in the region die from the disease each year.1

Specialised types of cancer cells, called breast cancer stem cells, are thought to be largely responsible for breast cancer coming back after treatment, both in the breast (recurrence) and around the body (metastasis). These stem cells can evade treatment by lying dormant in other parts of the body – sometimes for years after treatment has ended – before reawakening and forming new tumours. Destroying breast cancer stem cells could therefore be critical in killing the ‘roots of the weed’ – preventing them seeding new tumours.

Dr Ahmet Ucar, based at the University of Manchester, has previously found that two molecules, called P-Rex1 and Rac1b may be critical to the spread of HER2-positive and ER-positive breast cancer – the two most common types of the disease.

Dr Ucar and his team have already found that eliminating P-Rex1 results in the loss of breast cancer stem cells’ ability to form tumours, and cells that lack Rac1b function are unable to grow and invade.

With funding from Breast Cancer Now worth around £550,000, Dr Ucar is carrying out a five-year fellowship project to uncover the key roles these molecules play in normal mammary development. The team will investigate exactly how wiping out P-Rex1 and Rac1b affects the development of mammary glands in mice, and whether targeting them would have similar effects in breast tumours.

They will then assess whether preventing P-Rex1 and Rac1b function reduces tumour formation, growth and progression in mice with breast cancer, in addition to uncovering how inhibiting these molecules affects the growth of breast cancer stem cells. Dr Ucar hopes that this will reveal whether blocking either P-Rex1 or Rac1b could provide a new way to treat breast cancer.

Dr Ahmet Ucar, Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, said:

Understanding how P-Rex1 and Rac1b function in healthy cells will help us uncover whether eliminating them from breast cancer stem cells could be an effective way to stop the disease spreading.

Our research could lead to clinical trials of new drugs that could wipe out breast cancer stem cells for patients with the most common form of the disease. This could not only treat the breast tumour, but could also stop the disease returning, potentially preventing thousands of breast cancer deaths each year.

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research at Breast Cancer Now, which is funding the research, said:

We’re thrilled to have awarded Breast Cancer Now’s prestigious fellowship to Dr Ucar. This research could reveal how breast cancer stem cells are able to evade treatment and cause secondary tumours to grow. By examining two key molecules, Dr Ucar’s work could provide two new drug targets that would allow us to prevent the growth and spread of breast cancer.

Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live – and live well. Dr Ucar’s project could help bring us one step closer to this goal and we’d like to thank our supporters across Greater Manchester who continue to help make our vital research possible.


  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 https://www.cancerdata.nhs.uk/. Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.