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This year we’re celebrating 10 years of the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. By collecting tissue samples from people affected by breast cancer and making them available to researchers, our Tissue Bank accelerates progress towards faster diagnosis and better treatments.
Professor Valerie Speirs, co-principal investigator of the Tissue Bank who has been there from the beginning, puts into perspective the importance of the Tissue Bank in the last 10 years.
The Tissue Bank has been around for over 10 years, and there are now over 126,000 samples of different types – from tissue to tumours to blood. The purpose of these samples is to aid research, and the Tissue Bank is approached by researchers from all around the world, who are conducting studies into different types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Valerie explains: ‘We take the tissues and we add value to these tissues so that the tissues can be used in a variety of different projects. And of course, we hope that these tissues and cells are going to help unlock some of the secrets you like behind breast cancer so that we can have improved outcomes for patients and the future.’
There is also a cell team, which takes some of the tissues – if they’re appropriate – and grows cells in the lab. These cells are hugely useful, as they better represent the characteristics and diversity of human cancers.
The team have also collected a wide range of cell samples over the years which is a great tool, as there are some older samples of cells from people who get a recurrence or secondary breast cancer.
This means it is possible to look back and study those original cells and use the findings to maybe predict problems that others may face some years down the line.
One of the projects that the Tissue Bank supplied breast cells to a research group that created a ‘cell atlas of the human breast’.
This atlas was able to capture changes in the breast throughout natural processes such as ageing, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause. It was also able to show how these processes are altered in people who have changes to genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
This resource gave an insight into why cancers develop, which in turn helps develop new approaches for prevention and treatment.
The Tissue Bank also supported a project which uses AI (artificial intelligence) to screen for changes in BRCA genes. The project aims to more precisely estimate someone’s risk of breast cancer by looking at certain lifestyle choices in addition to details of their family history.
The Tissue Bank is supplying anonymised information about patients’ family history, as well as images of breast tissue on slides. These images can be used by AI to look for early signs of cancer.
Valerie adds: ‘We also have projects that are taking fragments of tissue from normal and genetically at-risk patients to see what the differences are, you know, in terms of genes, the molecules and proteins that are expressed in these tissues, so really a huge range of projects going on.’
Breast Cancer Now’s funding for the Tissue Bank is essential, and the studies it can facilitate are vital. Not only can it provide samples for researchers to test new drugs and treatments on, but it can also give a range of samples that show how cancers change over time. This is particularly important for secondary breast cancer research.
You can also listen to our podcast episode with Valerie.
A huge thank you to all the patients who have donated the tissues because without their kind donations, we wouldn't be able to have the bank as it is today and really push the boundaries.
The Tissue Bank provides hope for people currently affected by breast cancer, and for those who will go on to develop it in future. By donating to Breast Cancer Now, not only will you be helping to support vital research - you'll also be giving hope to those who need it.