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New research to investigate protein that fuels breast cancer

Researchers are investigating how breast cancer cells survive and grow, thanks to new funding from Breast Cancer Now.

Breast Cancer Now has awarded £249,575 to Dr Elena Rainero at the University of Sheffield, to study how breast cancer cells find nutrients to grow and spread, and the role a protein called a2b1 integrin plays in this process.

Cancer cells are fast-growing but face tough conditions, in part due to their lack of proper blood supply which means they don’t have many nutrients available to them.

To survive and grow, they must find ways to get these essential nutrients, such as glucose and amino acids.

The ability to adapt to challenging conditions is more common in invasive breast cancers, where cancer has spread from the milk ducts into the surrounding tissue of the breast.

Dr Elena Rainero and her colleagues previously found that breast cancer cells can use the supportive structures of cells as energy, allowing the cancer to grow despite the lack of normal nutrients within tumours.

They discovered that a protein called integrin a2b1, found on the surface of cells, helps breast cancer cells do this.

The researchers now want to understand how the protein moves inside the cells and reaches the cells’ digestive system.

They will use mouse models to block integrin a2b1 with drugs and assess the impact this has on a tumour’s growth and spread to other parts of the body – when it spreads the disease becomes incurable secondary breast cancer.

This research could uncover a cancer-specific process which may lead to the development of treatments that come with fewer side effects for patients, as healthy cells won’t be affected.

Dr Elena Rainero said: “We’ve known for a long time that cancer cells use nutrients to survive in different ways to healthy cells. They can also use alternative energy sources to fuel themselves. Surprisingly, there are relatively few ways in which cancer cells can do this. This means that understanding how breast cancer cells gather and use nutrients could lead to new treatments.”

Dr Simon Vincent, Breast Cancer Now’s director of research, support and influencing said: “This project will give us a better understanding of exactly how breast cancer cells sustain themselves, despite a lack of normal nutrients. And it could be an important step towards developing drugs that block the process used by cancer cells to survive.

“With around 55,000 people being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer every year in the UK, we urgently need to find new ways to treat people and prevent deaths from this devastating disease.”

Tracy Nicholls, 60, from Sheffield, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 after attending a routine mammogram appointment.

Tracy says: “My diagnosis came as a complete bolt from the blue. I had no lump or other symptoms and no family history of breast cancer. I was in shock and struggled to process the news. I had lost my mum just months before and was already dealing with a lot at the time.”

Tracy underwent surgery to remove the tumour in her breast and had seven lymph nodes removed. She had 21 rounds of radiotherapy and had to attend nearly all the sessions alone due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

She says: “I was very lucky that my cancer was caught early and was treatable. I can’t stress enough the importance of attending your routine mammogram, it saved my life.”

After completing treatment, Tracy started on a course of anastrozole, a hormone therapy drug, to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning but she says the fear of a recurrence never goes away.

Tracy says: “Anyone that has been through breast cancer worries about it coming back. It can be hard to push those feelings aside but knowing that new research like this is taking place, to help increase our knowledge and understanding of breast cancer, gives me hope for the future.”

Breast Cancer Now is the research and support charity here for anyone affected by breast cancer. Call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses or find out more and donate at


For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact the Breast Cancer Now press office at or call 07436 107914.

Notes to editors

If you’re experiencing breast cancer we’re here, whenever you need us. Be it through our support services, trusted breast cancer information or our specialist nurses who you can reach via our free helpline and 24/7 Online Forum. Backed by dedicated campaigners, we’re fighting for the best possible treatment, services, and care, for anyone affected by breast cancer. And support from our amazing fundraisers helps ensure our life-saving research and life-changing support can happen.

If you’re worried about breast cancer, or have a question about breast health, we’re here to support you every step of the way. Speak to our expert nurses now by calling our free helpline on 0808 800 6000 or visit

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