Project details

Researcher: Dr Sharon Glynn

Location: National University of Ireland, Galway

Project title: Finding new ways to predict patient survival outcomes through investigating the role of the gene HERV-K

Key area: Treatment

The challenge

Identifying specific biological factors that indicate how a disease is likely to progress is essential in order to tailor a patient’s treatment plan. Dr Glynn will investigate the role of four proteins, produced by the gene HERV-K, which may have the potential to act as predictive markers for breast cancer progression and risk of spreading to other parts of the body.

The science behind the project

Dr Glynn will be investigating how the gene HERV-K influences the development of breast cancer and promotes the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes. The HERV-K gene came from a viral infection of our DNA over 1 million years ago, and today all of us carry HERV-K hidden in our DNA. HERV-K is not ‘switched on’ in healthy tissue, however two thirds of breast cancers have an active HERV-K gene which produces four proteins, Env, Gag, Np9 and Rec. Previous research has shown that Env is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer spreading and a poor outlook for patients, however the function of the other three proteins remains unknown.

This study aims to identify the roles of the HERV-K proteins; Dr Glynn and her team will investigate whether Env and Gag drive tumour growth and therefore if drugs can be designed to target these proteins. Dr Glynn will also study whether the Np9 and Rec proteins are involved in the initial development of breast cancer. Additionally, the researchers will examine whether the production of HERV-K proteins varies between different types of breast cancer and, if so, whether testing for these proteins can be used to distinguish between different cancer subtypes.

What difference will this project make?

Dr Glynn’s work will enhance our understanding of the different biological factors that contribute to breast cancer and may enable new drugs to be developed to target the HERV-K proteins. Furthermore, determining whether there is a link between different quantities of these proteins and survival outcomes may lead to the development of tests that allow a patient’s HERV-K levels to be analysed in order to give a more accurate prediction of how their disease will progress and help determine the best course of treatment.

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