Project details

Researcher: Dr Rachael Natrajan

Project title: Functional Genomics Team

Location: The Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre, London

The challenge

Breast cancer is not one, but a collection of diverse and overlapping diseases and  not all cancer cells in an individual tumour are the same. This is a big challenge in breast cancer research and treatment.

Tumours are generally made up of cancer cells that have different features and molecular changes. It means each tumour behaves and responds differently to treatment. And it means some breast cancer cells in a tumour could resist treatment and spread to other parts of the body.

If breast cancer spreads, it’s currently incurable. So understanding how tumours can bypass treatments is essential to making them more effective.

The science behind the project

Dr Rachael Natrajan and her team look at the molecular make-up of each individual cell within breast cancers that are resistant to treatment. This allows a detailed view of which cells in particular could make the disease more aggressive. The team can then look at for weaknesses in these individual breast cancer cells, by growing 3D mini-tumours in the lab using samples donated by breast cancer patients. They can then use genetic techniques to test whether getting rid of certain individual cells stops tumours becoming aggressive.

“We hope to find new breast cancer treatments by understanding how changes within individual cancer cells drive aggressive tumours. We also hope to develop tests that can predict who will and who won’t benefit from specific treatments. This will spare people experiencing unnecessary side effects if the treatment isn’t right for them.” – Dr Rachael Natrajan

Rachael and her team are focusing on 2 projects.

1) Targeting genes that drive treatment-resistant breast cancer

Rachael’s previous research found that changes in some genes in breast cancer cells are linked to treatment resistance and poor outcomes.

Now, Rachael and her team are building on this research. They want to understand how these genes are involved in breast cancer’s development. Especially how they might influence what cancer cells breast tumours are made up of. And whether changes in these genes make breast cancer vulnerable to new or existing treatments.

2) Investigating tumour cell diversity in triple negative breast cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy

Rachael’s team want to understand how we could treat triple negative breast cancers that become resistant to chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Currently, treatment options for this form of breast cancer are limited. And a lot of people diagnosed with aggressive triple negative breast cancer rely on chemotherapy.

Rachael and her team are investigating how diverse the cancer cells are in chemotherapy-resistant forms of triple negative breast cancer. They hope this will help to find new weaknesses in triple negative breast cancer cells. And lead to improved treatments that target these weaknesses.

What difference will this project make?

Rachael’s project will give a better understanding of breast cancer that doesn’t respond to standard treatments. It’ll help to improve treatment and make sure every patient gets the right treatment for them.

Rachael hopes it could help people live with and beyond breast cancer.

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